Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Review: The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Literature endures when it articulates a truth about human nature. Thousands upon thousands of books have been written in the last 100 years alone, but many of them fall into obscurity, not always because they were bad, though many of them were, but because they were written in the moment and don't say anything beyond that moment. The Moviegoer was the first novel of Catholic writer Walker Percy, and it won the National Book Award for 1962. Reading it today is uncanny because Percy accurately describes the malaise of Western civilization 50 years before the first manosphere blog was published.

The story is narrated by John "Binx" Bolling during the week leading up to his 30th birthday which coincides with Mardi Gras that year. Binx is a veteran of the Korean War and a successful stockbroker from a long line of Southern gentlemen. He spends his free time watching TV, listening to the radio, or going to the movies. He's a womanizer and the book describes his abortive relationships with his secretaries. Binx is by all appearances a successful young man, but he's dead on the inside. The book is primarily about his "search."
What is the nature of the search? you ask.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.
The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn't miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
Binx lacks the conceptual framework to be more explicit about his search, but the reader figures out he's searching for the meaning of his life. Despite the title, he doesn't spend much of the novel in movie theaters but they do serve as a metaphor for his feelings: his life is a movie, he's the star, and everyone else is a supporting character. Their movements, their speaking, everything is scripted for a fantasy world. He is able to observe without reacting or being moved at an emotional level. Sounds like a lot of bloggers I know.

Binx has a large extended family, split between his mother who is a devout middle-class Catholic, and his great-aunt, a grand old Southern dame who's proud of her ancestry and believes in concepts that were even then considered old fashioned such as class and noblesse oblige. Binx's step-cousin Kate Cutrer comes closest to fully understanding his anxiety and ennui, though she herself is suicidal and manic-depressive. Kate later describes that she never feels more alive than when she considers suicide.

There's not much of a plot. Binx spends pages ruminating on his surroundings, systematically deconstructing his job, his loved ones, and his failed romantic advances on his secretary Sharon Kincaid. The climax is when his great-aunt gives him a good dressing down after realizing his problem:
"Would you verify my hypothesis? Is not that your discovery? First, is it not true that in all of past history people who found themselves in difficult situations behaved in certain familiar ways, well or badly, courageously or cowardly, with distinction or mediocrity, with honor or dishonor. They are recognizable. They display courage, pity, fear, embarrassment, joy, sorrow, and so on. Such anyhow has been the funded experience of the race for two or three thousand years, has it not? Your discovery, as best I can determine, is that there is an alternative which no one has hit upon. It is that one finding oneself in one of life's critical situations need not after all respond in one of the traditional ways. No. One may simply default. Pass. Do as one pleases, shrug, turn on one's heels and leave. Exit. Why after all need one act humanly? Like all great discoveries, it is breathtakingly simple."
Isn't that the decision more and more men make in the 21st century? We've never had so many toys and so few reasons to live. Binx is a nominal Catholic who describes his unbelief as "invincible," and that it wouldn't make a difference if God himself descended from the heavens to perform a few miracles for his enlightenment. His step-siblings are devout Catholics (meaning they practice the faith) like their mother, and Binx is able to speak their language. They see God present in the smallest and most mundane details of life. Binx cannot see the meaning in anything he does and drifts through life and relationships.

The novel ends with Binx and Kate marrying. We receive some inkling that he's feeling better by then as he now has a wife and is planning to attend medical school. He and his aunt reconcile once she realizes that the family has indeed come down in the world and that her nephew is just an ordinary man after all.

The author, using Binx as a mouthpiece, describes modern man as being nicer than the Christians and naughtier than the pagans. We do not strive for virtue anymore. We don't even sin mightily. Instead we're nice. Binx enjoys going to the library to read political magazines, not because he identifies as liberal or conservative, but because he's amused by the back and forth.

Human beings need to feel part of a coherent universe, to belong to something. The churches, the country, the culture, they're all encouraging greater atomization of society. We feel disconnected. Isolated. And when that happens we become listless, lethargic, sometimes suicidal. Percy returns to these themes in his other works.

On some level, I can identify with Binx. He goes to the movies, I read books. We differ in that I'm a believing Catholic, for starters. Christianity won't solve all of your problems but it does teach you how to laugh at them. I know that God created me and put me in this world at this time for a reason though I may know not what. Reality is hierarchical with God at its apex. The Catholic knows his place in the hierarchy and what is expected of him, although many fail to live up to those truths.

The right side of the blogosphere is devoted to recording the ongoing crisis of Western civilization, though some believe it has already collapsed beyond repair. Much electronic ink has been spilled wondering what to do about all of it. Should we go full blown PUA or MGTOW, consigning the world to the flames while we enjoy the chaos at poolside? Should we concentrate on self-improvement in preparation for when the shooting starts? Should we put ourselves out there and actively try to stem the tide?

The first choice is not an option for me. Many men are searching, like Binx. They won't find what they're ultimately searching for outside the Body of Christ. I'm confident that those who are committed to pursuing the truth will wind up there sooner or later. If you seek goodness, truth, and beauty, you'll be drawn to its source. Along the way you might discover that meaning was there all along in the details.


  1. "The Moviegoer" is a thoughtful and a thought-provoking book that should be read and then re-read, slowly and carefully, for every paragraph is laden with insight into the character of its narrator, the character of its author and, ultimately, the character of ourselves.

  2. The title refers to the main characters fascination with movies, but the movies just seem to provide a place for him to go and wonder but again, nothing particularly interesting ever arises from these trips. The wondering is so aimless that you can't believe it will lead to anything better.

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