Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Moviegoer (1961)

I was pretty sure a well-liked award-winning novel with this title would be one I'd go for, even though it somehow evaded me most of my life and a misbegotten attempt at another Walker Percy novel (Lancelot, I think) had not gone well. But I did not like The Moviegoer very much. It has some resemblance to The Great Gatsby and Appointment in Samarra, with a quixotic single white man of 30, a born daydreamer now more urgently required to grow up. The moviegoing aspect was more metaphorical and symbolic than merely moviegoing. It still got some things right on that score but they seem old now, coming from a time when Paul Newman was just on the horizon. My main complaint was the aimlessness of the narrative, which mimics the aimlessness of its main character, one Binx Bolling, an insufferable Southern gentleman twit. He lives in a suburb of New Orleans and works as a stockbroker in a local office. He gets along all right, kaff-kaff. He's a womanizer, targeting a series of secretaries. His family is fractured and complicated. He appears to be close to an aunt, and a cousin is a romantic interest. He has his problems. He's not likable. But he is a very good writer—Percy, I mean, by way of Binx, who is the official first-person narrator. Every sentence here glitters. I read a print version and missed the online dictionary access of kindle products because my vocabulary was challenged and I was too lazy to go look things up. I wish he would have talked more about movies. His obsession felt convincing and familiar but often alien too. He had a thing about theater architecture, for example. I might have shared it even as recently as the '70s, but the years and decades of multiplexes and video rental outlets have drummed it out of me. He also sorts his movies more by performers than directors—well, I suppose most people do. But movies are really beside the point in this novel, where "moviegoer" is more like someone passively gazing at life—actively pursuing passively gazing, or something like that. It's just an image. Much like his sex life, which is a little reminiscent of the smug Nails song "88 Lines About 44 Women." It all appears to relate back on deeper levels (I'm on the Wikipedia article now to shore up my case for why this exists) to existential considerations, Soren Kierkegaard, Dante, and naturally the status and future of Southern writing. The Moviegoer is resolutely inert, with formal likenesses to The Stranger by Albert Camus. I came away from it with some vague hostility, the result as much as anything of disappointed expectations set by the title, and also frustrated by all the beautiful sentences in the service of allusive complications too tedious to follow. At the same time I suspect, somewhat uneasily, that The Moviegoer could become one I like more with another reading. At the moment I can't bear to think of that. But so many people do like it so much.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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