Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer is in many ways the first important novel of the New South. The setting is not agricultural; the characters are not grotesques, larger-than-life figureheads, “rednecks,” or symbols. The plot does not hinge upon treasure buried in the backyard. Rather, it is a world in which air conditioners, fast living, color televisions, and movies have replaced mint juleps and moss trees.
In this New South, existentialism has arrived. The main character, Binx Bolling, views himself as a character in a film. He is alienated from nature, society, family, culture, and God. Only films, those impersonal images on the screen, seem to offer him any vision into the purpose and meaning of his own life. He possesses attention only for his own self as a character. Watching movies becomes, for Binx Bolling, watching life, and watching life becomes living life; or, at least, watching life is a substitute for living it. It is as close as he can get. Binx cannot live life: He cannot go to medical school as his aunt would have it. He cannot fall in love with one of his secretaries, although like characters in a movie, he can have sex with them. He cannot go to church; he cannot even go to Chicago for the week in any meaningful way. He is trapped like a character in a film—unable to control the script, the action, or the projector.
In the opening chapter of the novel, Binx realizes that all the people around him are “dead.” They are far more lifeless and immobile than characters on the screen. He is attracted to and repulsed by the Elysian Fields, the nearby suburb of New Orleans. It is a place with a significant name but no substance. It is the new landscape of the South and America.
Much of Binx’s efforts center on some sort of self-announced search that he is on. The author toys with this as a literary scheme and device. On one hand, Binx’s search is for the meaning of life, the Holy Grail, the Helen of Troy, the Elysian Fields, the wine of communion—for union with self and God. On the other, it is only a pale imitation of these things in the shadowy no-man’s-land of modern life. There is, Percy perhaps implies, not without irony, no Holy Grail in contemporary life unless it is sex. Binx is left to conclude that “Nothing remains but desire.”
Binx is on a search for the meaning of life, so the novel proceeds in a formulaic fashion. Binx ponders and thinks; he has sophomoric discussions; he tries to find answers in others and in relationships; he goes to church and studies the arts and literature; he would enter a profession to find meaning in work; he has affairs with women that come to nothing, not even pain. His business trip to Chicago is something of a parody of an odyssey in which a young person leaves home a boy and returns a man. Binx, however, leaves home a boy and returns as one. Kate is something of an anti-Helen. She, too, is emotionally defunct and incapable of love. Her drugs, whiskey, and suicide attempts are also indicative of an alienation that is so complete it amounts to selfishness. It is also a renunciation of the role of women in Percy’s New South.
Binx returns home (to Gentilly, Louisiana) to marry Kate, bury the dead in the family, soothe his aunt Emily, and proceed with business, which turns out to be life as usual. He learns that he can do no better than go to...
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movies, for movies are momentary events in which life becomes interesting. The fantasy produced by the screen is more rewarding and fulfilling than the monotony of life at home and work and marriage. Watching movies affords not so much distraction as pretentious involvement with life. Binx cannot be a movie star, which is to say that he cannot have a glamorous, exciting, and rewarding life. What he can do, though, is see himself as a character in a movie and become detached from self, and all the problems that go along with having a role. This detachment is not permanent, but it is one way of dealing with life.
Binx is the prototype of all the main characters in Percy’s later novels. A white, middle-class male suffering from adolescent angst, incipient middle age, distraction, alienation, and paranoia, Binx embodies and foreshadows such characters as Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman, Lance Lamar in Lancelot, and Tom More in Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. Binx, a self-defined and self-explained castaway, is representative of persons living in a universe where love and meaning cannot be found.