Jack “Binx” Bolling is a Korean war vet and listless womanizer, selling stocks by day and sexually harassing his secretary. He marries his (step-)cousin, in the end, a woman experimenting with medicating herself to the brink of suicide in order to find freedom from the oppressive world Percy creates. The Moviegoer is the first book on my Modern Library read-through that I hate: a feat considering my long love of existentialist literature.
The problem with Percy’s novel is not so much that it fails to capture the aloof and simple tones of its contemporaries, which it does. There’s nothing wrong with the writing, which explores the protagonist’s construction of the world, or his avoidance of it, through his concepts of certification (when a place you’re connected to appears in popular media), repetition (a connection between the past and present), and rotation (an anticipation of the future), as he tries to understand life at the end of his 20s through a series of moviegoing experiences. These concepts alone are worthy of study. I found myself for the first time with the language to understand the feeling I get when I see places I relate to in pop culture. Small town girl-cum-world traveler that I am, I struggle with accepting that the world I experience and the world that always lived in my head can be one in the same. It feels like wisdom when I see a building in a film and can place the texture of its concrete on the tips of my fingers.
The Moviegoer makes more sense to me now than it did when I first read it nearly 20 years ago. Perhaps because I have been certified: when I read it when I was younger and untraveled, New Orleans was just another place that existed in theory. But I’ve been there now and I know what Elysian Fields looks like and I know what a krewe looks like and I have seen the enduring legacy of racism clashing with the city’s nature as a cultural melting pot and New Orleans is certified for me now. It makes it all the more frustrating to see how Percy fails to connect the South’s coming of age with Binx’s. This feels like a missed opportunity.
Of course, it’s not one Percy would have taken. It’s a small wonder that the books, with its casually racist tones, or its explicitly misogynist ones, has not been taken up by neo-Confederates as mandatory reading for their equally aimless neophytes. It’s not that The Moviegoer doesn’t have potential. I’d love to see a retelling of the story from the perspective of the women in Binx’s orbit. They’re the ones with true power. But perhaps we’re not ready yet for the feminist reconstruction of mid-century Southern literature, and anyway if we were, I’m doubtful Percy’s debut novel would be high on that list.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.