Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Wednesday

It’s a week before Ash Wednesday, which means it’s time for me to launch into my annual re-reading of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, which is set in New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras. I’ve been re-reading The Moviegoer every year since it was assigned to me for a class in 20th Century American Fiction at Loyola back in the depths of the Reagan era. (Thank you, Professor Hugh Egan.) For the last few years, I’ve been reading the book in real time, which is to say I read the sections of the book that take place on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras on that Wednesday, the Thursday sections on Thursday, etc. There’s no very compelling reason to read like this and some good reasons not to—for one thing, trying to explain this system makes you sound a little unhinged. But I do it mainly because I think Binx Bolling, The Moviegoer’s hero and narrator, would approve.

Binx, the nearly-thirty-year-old stockbroker who is making a project of “living the most ordinary life imaginable,” is on to the peculiar wonder of finding oneself, say, in a moviehouse that one had gone to years earlier, seeing the same sort of movie, during the same season. He calls it a repetition: “A reenactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed, in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

So my re-reading is supposed to be a kind of nod to Binx, a half-assed repetition.

One of the first things Binx tells us about his life is that it’s an uneventful one. It’s an odd way to start a novel, this grabbing the reader by the lapels and insisting on one’s utter mundaneness. Binx goes on at some length regarding this point: how he abandoned the Garden District for the middle-class suburb of Gentilly; how he rents a basement apartment from the widow Mrs. Schexnaydre (“a vigorous pony-size blond”); how he likes nothing better than his trips to the movies.

Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Wednesday’s main event is Binx’s trip to his aunt’s house for lunch and “one of her serious talks.” On the way he spots William Holden on Royal Street and trails him and his “heightened reality” for a block or two. (“Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes.’) He also runs into a friend on Canal Street and listens to him bullshit about a recently deceased client. (“That man spoke me for two hours about the history of the crystallization of sugar and it was pure romance. I was fascinated.”) Then, at lunch, we meet the family: his deeply depressed cousin Kate, her grasping fiancé Walter, and Binx’s domineering aunt, who wheedles a promise from Binx that in one week—on his thirtieth birthday—he will report back to her on his plans for the rest of his life. (She wants him to go to medical school.)

Much gets made of the “search” that Binx announces in this opening section of the novel. He’s a little vague on the details--it’s “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Some critics, following Percy’s lead, have latched on to the existential crisis and read The Moviegoer as if it were a novelization of Kierkegaard. But I’d pay less attention to philosopher Binx than to smart-ass Binx, the droll, cool camera-eye. He has a talent for attracting the pompous and ultra-serious, and he does us the service of catching and recording, for example, that business about the crystallization of sugar. That’s worth as much as any search.

Tomorrow: Binx plots the seduction of his new secretary and borrows a Reader's Digest from Mrs. Schexnaydre.


  1. The 40-something year old me likes the idea of smart-ass Binx better than the 19-year-old me liked philosopher Binx. Maybe it's time for me to reread this one.

  2. Excellent, join the read. Plenty of time before Mardi Gras.