I stumbled upon this novel due to its title and, after a brief search, found that it had beat out Heller’s Catch-22 and Salinger’s Franny & Zooey to win the 1962 National Book Award in the United States after two previous printings in 1960 and 1961. For me, it seems the surrounding international climate of literature at the time would’ve welcomed the decision. This is a novel about a self-described ‘moviegoer’ at a time (between 1958 and 1962) when people are writing under the influence of a film culture, to the extent that cinematic references are thoroughly weaved into the literary text. This movement reached its peak in France with the cinematic styles of New Novel writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, but also movie theater settings as in the final autobiographical novel of Albert Camus (The First Man) written during the same period. By the mid-1960s, literary critic Roland Barthes’ move toward theory and semiotics was heavily based upon this literary current whereby, he noted in an introduction to Robbe-Grillet, novels presented “all the experimental conditions of cinematographic vision.” (see Barthes 1965: 19) Walker Percy, heavily influenced by French literature and continental philosophy, aimed to Americanize some of its currents in this novel. And as for National Book Award(s), it is no surprise that the transatlantic alliance between French and American literature would’ve likely welcomed and awarded Percy’s efforts.
But beside book awards and aesthetic trends of the time, there are other several unlikely reasons to work through this otherwise uniquely American novel. The first is the symptomatic flatness of an American modernity that buries absurdity with what our first person narrator calls ‘everydayness’. The second is the ‘moviegoer’ tendency that shifts between selfishness and selflessness, or an alienated sense of being continuously uprooted; a refusal of anyone image to, instead, live between many. This will carry the moviegoer motif into the cinematic experiments in form of the latter half of the novel.
The protagonist “a stock and bond broker” named John Bolling (“Binx”), navigating between the urban core of a modernist New Orleans and the modernity of its Gentilly suburbs, wherein lies the central motif of a movie theater, is engaged in a search. “The search” Binx says is “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…[t]o become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. (13)” The post-war New Orleans that provides the cinematic landscape of this novel is fraught with tourists and a threatening ‘everydayness’ underpinned by certainties that stifle “the search”: nationwide polls, religion, and the mundane casual conversation of a fading class nobility surrounding Binx’s somewhat comfortable life. But chance and uncertainty contradict this everydayness: recent memories of being wounded in the Korean War, a suicidal cousin-in-law named Kate Cutrer suffering the after affect of her diseased fiancé, the slower background mobility of the African American underclass, and of course movies. “Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives…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. (7)” The age of moving images not only displaces reality, but cuts across it as a form of disagreement. And so Binx summarizes his existence as such: “My exile in Gentilly has been the worst kind of self-deception. (18)”
This form of disagreement forces Binx, like many in modernity, into an in-between space of self-awareness based on images. Kate, on the other hand the character who suffers most from the despair of being, is caught in a ‘dialectic’ (46) swinging from spirituality, youthful socialism, to the embodiment of intimate associations. To be caught within a dialectic, Binx muses, is to be socially bipolar, shifting between opposing and contradictory selves. In the same way, Binx encounters a young man imitating a the anachronistic romantic reading Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma on a bus from Chicago to New Orleans. Critically analyzing his acquaintance, Binx casts the young busrider as one “sticking himself into the world in a certain fashion, of slumping in an acceptable slump, of reading an acceptable book on an acceptable bus” (215). In both the case of Kate and the imitative young romantic, self-awareness of the unfortunate dialectic will drive them both into despair. For the latter, “[h]e is a moviegoer, though of course he does not go to the movies. (216)” In other words, there is a possibility in his search but it his closed by his preference of one particular image. There is one other moviegoer of note in the novel, a central arresting image. His name is Lonnie, the fifteen year old half-brother of the protagonist who suffers from routine sicknesses (pneumonia, the “five day virus”, and some undiagnosed) and the recent death of his older brother. Binx confirms, “[l]ike me, he is a moviegoer. He will go to see anything…[h]is life is serene business. (137)” There is an inverse relationship between the moviegoer and ‘everydayness’.
Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it—but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch. (145)
Particular attention, in this novel, should be paid to the role of disaster. At one point Binx admits to have secretly “hoped for the end of the world” to spawn a collective discovery of a self amid ruins (231). At another point, he admits in a Mike Davis-like proposition, that everyone hopes for an end to American everydayness: “what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall (228)”. Binx longs for a “cut” across time, a fragmentation of the image standing at the center of the world (as Wittgenstein says), to open up the possibility of conducting new and different searches.
In cinematic terms, the cut (like cross-cutting) calls for a form of juxtaposition rather than a dialectic that requires either an arrival or synthesis at some point. It is neither pure experiment or mere background, as ‘cutting’ is a dominant form of modern vision entering the novel by measure of its verisimilitude. In the observation car of a train to Chicago, Binx therefore narrates its path as “cutting off backyards in odd trapezoids” where “the cemeteries look at first like cities” or, further down, “[l]ike a city seen from far away. Now in the suburbs we ride at a witch’s level above the gravelly roofs. (185)” Cutting transforms suburbs to cities through a view particular to modern technologies that set images in motion as they cut across them. Here, the moviegoer is also a passenger. Further observations weave ‘cutting’ into the ride: “[a]s the train rocks along on its unique voyage through space time, thousands of tiny thing-events bombard us like cosmic particles. (190)” In one of these “thing-events” a fellow passenger orderly clips an article from the newspaper. Binx sees only the words “the gradual convergence of physical science and social science.” The scene resembles the very mode of assembling our reality that consists in making cuts. In a following chapter, an old friend reacts with violent gesticulation when Binx brings up a war memory that connects the two. The reemergence is abrupt and unwelcomed because it has been “cut adrift like a great ship in the flood of years. (210)” Again, it’s not that movies have firmly enveloped life—though that may be the present case, but that its form of juxtaposition through ‘cutting’ share a stark resemblance with how The Moviegoer cuts across the time and space of modernity.
Barthes, Roland. 1965. Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet. In Two Novels By Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy and In the Labyrinth. New York: Grove Press.
Percy, Walker. 1998 (1960). The Moviegoer. New York: Vintage International.