Book Summary: The Moviegoer by Walter Percy

Book Summary: The Moviegoer by Walter Percy

A close friend recommended this book to me last year.  I really enjoyed it, yet afterwards, I wasn't really sure what I had read. Since then I've been fumbling with it, revisiting it, searching for clues. So nearly a year later, I hope to put this task to rest and summarize the book and the key takeaways.

The Plot

This book tells the story of Binx Bolling, a 29-year old stockbroker in postwar New Orleans. Due to the circumstances of his family and his experience in the Korean war, Binx has carved out for himself a lifestyle of isolation, fleeting romantic relationships, and escapism into movies. Taking place over a week leading up to Ash Wednesday, we follow Binx as he wanders through New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and Chicago on a search for meaning in life.

What's impressive about this book is the many sub-themes. It's a story about a changing America post-WW2, a modernizing South, consumerism, and the loneliness of suburbia. We get a glimpse into the psyche of a young man altogether not unlike his peers—focused on careers, jobs, and prospering in a nuclear age.

But what is most interesting "The Search".

The Search

Binx calls his lifestyle "The Little Way", "It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh." Despite his Aunt's urgings to make a contribution, Binx rejects it, “But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own”.

Yet Binx is plagued with an anxiety to continue his search. This is his method for combating "the malaise", caused by the "everydayness" of his routine life in Gentilly.

"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 is a story about existential longing. It's about Binx's quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Binx is using "The Search" as a means to find his purpose. Unfortunately, as Binx make progress towards this aim, he thwarts his effort through meaningless distractions: women, money schemes, and movies.

“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.”

This is most obvious in his relationships with women.He treats them interchangeably— a series of Lindas, Sharons, and Marcias. He views them in the possessive, with a focus on their physical attributes. Each Sharon could be a Linda. During the novel, Binx takes his latest secretary, Sharon, on a trip to the Gulf Coast, and upon picking her up sees her roommate Joyce standing in the window, “If only I could be with both of them, with a house full of them, an old Esplanade rooming house full of strapping American girls with their silly turned heads and their fine big bottoms”.

What can explain Binx's outlook? What can explain his isolation, lack of real relationships, long walks at night alone, and the inclination towards "The Little Way"?  I could only better understand it by understanding Kieerkegaard's "aesthetic".

The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and scepticism; and flight from boredom.

This describes Binx's outlook throughout the book. Where he lives, how he spends his time, what he spends his time thinking about — all of it resembles the focus of someone in the aesthetic stage of their life. What's not surprising is when Binx fails to lift himself out of the "everydayness" and the "malaise", despite his continued effort. As he tries harder, the malaise sets in, “Nevertheless I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness... The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search”.

Kierkegaard, on progressing from the aesthetic stage:

In order to raise oneself beyond the merely aesthetic life, which is a life of drifting in imagination, possibility and sensation, one needs to make a commitment. That is, the aesthete needs to choose the ethical, which entails a commitment to communication and decision procedures"

Where Binx went wrong is the belief that through sensory experiences, escapism, and remaining open to all possibilities, one can come closer to understanding the meaning of the universe. But the universe to the existentialists is not something that reveals itself to you through exploration. To Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sarte, the universe has no inherent meaning at all. As a result, one must create that meaning for themselves.

Only through the Lonnie character, and his trip to Chicago with his depressed and anxious cousin does he begin to make a transition. Initially I wasn't quite sure why Kate would have caused the transition, but to me there are a few reasons.

First, his duty to his Aunt Emily causes Binx, for once, care for someone. Kate is volatile, prone to depression, and maybe suicidal. This forces Binx to devote himself to her. Second, Binx recognizes himself in Kate, who is even more prone to "the malaise" than he. This recognition, alongside his new devotion to her, sparks in him a willingness to commit to a human connection, escape the "everydayness", and defeat the malaises, "At last I spy Kate; her stiff little Plymouth comes nosing into my bus stop. There she sits like a bomber pilot, resting on her wheeland looking at the children and not seeing, and she could be I myself, sooty eyed and nowhere”. Lastly, Binx has to leave New Orleans, to experience an even worse sense of place to appreciate the culture that he values, and that Kate embodies, “There I see [Kate] plain for the first time since I lay wounded in a ditch and watched an Oriental finch scratching around in the leaves . . . I never noticed how shrewd and parsimonious she is—a true Creole”.

As I did research for this summary, I came across a Kierkegaard quote, "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." It's such a fitting description for a novel about a character, on a dizzying search for answers, only to grow desperate in the face of his own freedom and possibility. He finally finds it in Kate. Their shared outlook of the world, unique to themselves, is where their meaning was found.

There's so much more to this book than I can summarize here. You'll find in it even more symbolism and sub-themes - such as the role of faith in Binx' life and whether he ultimately accepted that faith. I urge you to read it and come to your own conclusion.

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