Often as a writer, I get stalled on a project that has suddenly gone stagnant, and so I often jump to a new project to reinvigorate myself, hoping to later attack the initial piece with new determination. Recently, I applied this strategy to my reading life as well: I’ve been stalled on Julius Caesar, one of my challenge books for weeks now, so instead of finishing it, I jumped to another challenge book and finished it instead. The Moviegoer is one of the title I chose for the Southern Literature challenge, and I feel so lucky to have discovered it.
I just finished teaching The Catcher in the Rye with my ninth graders, and at first I thought that recent experience might be clouding my judgment, as I kept seeing echoes of CITR in The Moviegoer, which was published ten years later. They both feature a young male narrator and a stream-of-consciousness style, but more than that, both young men are at a pivotal point in their lives, haunted by similar terrors, though one names it as “phoniness” and the other as “everydayness” or “malaise.” Both young men are wandering through a world where they don’t seem to belong, unable to fulfill the ideals of manhood and adulthood that society and their families have laid out for them, and both are in turn fascinated and appalled by those around them who seem to ft seamlessly into a world that seems so inscrutable.
Binx Bolling is a bit luckier with the ladies and about a decade older than Holden Caulfield, but I still believe they would have much to say to each other. Other differences come in setting: The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans, we meet Binx’s mother, aunt, uncle and cousin, the vivid and unstable Kate, and Binx is not afraid of adulthood as much as he is feeling a deeper ambivalence about the world itself.He is also funnier than Holden, and the novel has distinct cinematic qualities that make for a very different atmosphere than CITR. I think it’s also a bit more pleasant to spend a novel in Binx’s head, and I think anyone hovering around the age of 30 will recognize him, either in ourselves or in the faces of the youngish men we know.
Reading it in the post-Katrina years, I wondered how different this landscape must be, and this wonderful blog post addresses this more honestly and hauntingly than I ever could. Others have called the book the greatest book about New Orleans ever written, and speculate on how Percy would have reacted to Katrina himself. It is rather heartbreaking to think that most of this landscape has disappeared, but then, Binx’s aunt delivers a stirring speech in the book about the disappearing nature of Southern manhood and nobility, so perhaps it just reinforces the pervasive melancholy faced in the book.
I finished the novel, with its evocative atmosphere still lingering, and wondered why it doesn’t have the same classic status as CITR or even other American novels do. Yes, it still gets named as one of the top 100 English-language novels of its century (a weirdly restrictive superlative), but before choosing it for this challenge, I had scarcely heard of it. After doing some digging, I learned that The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in the same year that Catch-22, Franny and Zooey and Revolutionary Road were published, so maybe it simply gets overshadowed.
Either way, I can’t recommend this highly enough, and am definitely glad it has found a home on my shelves.