The search for meaning is a staple of literature. For that matter, it’s a staple of civilization. Once you don’t have to worry about survival from day to day, that’s what comes next.
The problem with spiritual quests for meaning is that they end up being recitations of clichés. Spiritual meaning is not found in money or sex. We know this because writers and dramatists have told us more times than we can count. It can be found in love or family, we know this for the same reason and we also know this because our sentimentality tells us so and we happily surrender to it because questing for meaning is really no fun at all.
Binx Bolling is a Korean War veteran coming up on his 30th birthday. He comes from an old money, rather eccentric New Orleans family. He is something of a black sheep and seemingly rather directionless. He passed up on a family approved career in medical research — a field in which he showed talent — and now works as a stock broker in the family brokerage.
Binx has abandoned New Orleans proper for the suburbs, spends his time making money for his clients (and himself), bedding his secretaries, and going to the movies. This is the prototypical lost bachelor life; superficially comfortable and satisfying to the point where a man must wonder “Is that all there is?”
You see what I mean about clichés?
Except Binx doesn’t delude himself with conventional wisdom. He doesn’t believe the answer is love or adventure in the traditional sense. He engages in something he refers to as The Search, a Zen like process in which he is not so much attempting to find answers as to see the world as it truly is and appreciate what is before his eyes. Much of this stems from his experience of being wounded during the war and, while lying in great pain from his wounds, uncertain of whether he would live or die, he observed a beetle moving about and saw it with an existential clarity. His mission is to view the world as such; to not give in to the despair of the mundane.
It sounds horribly pretentious, but Percy doesn’t play it that way. As we follow Binx through a couple of weeks of life, we are not exposed to any extended treatises on the deep spiritual nature of things from a monk-like point of view. Binx is a bit of an eccentric, from an eccentric family. He likes making money for his clients and himself. He visits with two disparate sects of his family and keeps up close ties with both. He chases after his secretaries and has a healthy, and rather ribald, appreciation of the female backside.
But Binx maintains a certain detachment. He is a moviegoer. He observes, he perceives, he reacts, but he does not wholeheartedly participate. He feels, somewhat arrogantly, that the people of the world live lives of a passionless despair whereas he yearns to find a zeal for the world around him.
Over the course of the book, primarily through interactions with troubled family members for whom he has a special fondness, Binx discovers that he can’t draw the line between himself and the world that cleanly; that the zeal he seeks can only come through embracing what he perceives as the mundane and that emotional richness and fervent ardor are not one in the same. (Many readers of The Moviegoer have interpreted this as a spiritual awakening to a faith in God, if not specifically Christianity. It didn’t strike me as such.)
Binx is a fine character. Certainly an excellent portrayal of the combination of thoughtfulness and fecklessness that is common in unattached, mildly cynical, 30-year-old males. In that sense, it is possible to see The Moviegoer as a literary version of the male confessional, as exemplified by the Nick Hornby in About a Boy, but without the contemporary penchant for hyper-irony. It is remarkable to see how little that archetype has changed since The Moviegoer was released around 1960.
The Moviegoer is not difficult to read, but it is difficult to get a grip on. Percy can be a bit obtuse and provides few crutches for a reader who isn’t ready to devote some thought to deeper meanings. The book is laced with detailed accounts and evaluations of what may or may not be trivial observations by Binx. These can be interesting or humorous, but it is not a plain and simple matter to link them to the larger theme. As a result, you can be left with the feeling they are superfluous.
Because of that, I can’t really recommend it for a casual read. It needs to be considered if it is to have an effect, and anytime you need to put work into reading a novel, you run the risk that it will not have been worth it. The Moviegoer works best for the avid reader who can bear that risk. There are rewards, but they are not out in the open, nor will they be of value to everyone.