I’m always wary when new editions of old books trumpet their trophy cabinets. The really great ones don’t need to. Take my Penguin Modern Classics Invisible Man, for instance: you have to look very closely in its front matter to find any mention of its National Book Award. Whereas my Methuen edition of The Moviegoer emblazons its National Book Award across its front cover. Happily for readers, this is not a reflection on the novel’s quality; only on its impact. For while The Moviegoer may have come top in ’62, it is the novels that didn’t win that year, Franny and Zooey, Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road, that have had the last laugh, all going on to achieve classic status and platinum sales figures (much later in the case of Yates’ book) in a way I don’t think The Moviegoer has ever quite managed. Which is a shame, because it really is a terrific novel.
Evoking The Great Gatsby and not suffering by the comparison is just one of its achievements. Take its narrator, Binx Bolling. He bears a strong resemblance to Nick Carraway. Both do the same job; both are on the cusp of thirty. He even sounds like Nick:
I am a stock and bond broker. It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. 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 longing […] It is not a bad life at all.
You can be sure that anyone who says that at the start of a novel is not going to feel that way for long. Though it is hard to pinpoint exactly what throws Binx off course. As you can see, he lives a fairly hermetic life. A bachelor and a business owner, his only real vice is his womanizing, with each of his secretaries – Marcia, Linda and the one we meet, Sharon – falling foul of his charms. These are also hard to pinpoint. Like Nick, Binx is really quite feckless – “sure” is his response to just about any question – and his snobbish Aunt Emily is allowed to completely engineer his life.
With this in mind, you might expect Binx’s voracious moviegoing to be his way of escape, of living by proxy, but it is not quite that. This extract illuminates it, I think:
it was here in the Tivoli [theater] that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a re-release of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint stirrings of curiosity about that particular seat I sat in […] I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered, will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now?
Place and time are key. Binx’s nightmare is that he should “be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time.” He craves specificity, what I’ll call “here and now-ness.” That, as I understand it, is the object of “the search” he talks so much about, and when he does not have it, he feels untethered. That’s when “the malaise” sets in; the malaise that suddenly “settles […] like a fall-out” during an otherwise-happy day out with Sharon. There are a few more of these Don DeLillo-esque abstractions throughout the novel, none clearly defined, suggesting to me a depressive who doesn’t have the language – or want the language – to understand that’s what he is. And he’s not the only one. Ever since her fiancé died in a car crash the day before their wedding, cousin Kate has also suffered bouts of blackness and has been a constant source of worry to her family. With Kate now due to marry again, her mental state is once more under the microscope and Aunt Emily enjoins Binx, the only one in whose company Kate feels comfortable, to keep an eye on her.
Given the place and time of the novel – New Orleans circa 1960 – Aunt Emily’s concerns are perfectly plausible. This is a society held together with spit and glue; an old world not yet touched by civil rights, but about to be, and an erratic element like Kate is a threat to that. In Aunt Emily’s African American manservant, Mercer, for instance, Uncle Tom is still very much in evidence: “My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age.” But there is change in the air. Watching a Mardi Gras parade file past, Binx and Kate bear witness to “a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes” who seem to presage this change. The result is a New Orleans of semi-mythic power, like Fitzgerald’s Long Island; it’s no coincidence that Binx lives in a suburb called “Elysian Fields.”
There is also literal change in the air; storms are forever brewing and venting, with direct consequences on those below: “[Kate] will not feel wonderful long. […] I know very well that when the night falls away into gray distances, she will sink into herself.” Now, I am usually allergic to descriptions of sky and weather – and advise all writers to avoid them – but Percy’s really are wonderful:
The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeing shreds and ragtags of cloud.
In a novel of ideas and alienation like this one, such lyricism really leavens it. That doubling up of adjectives in “cool heavy front” I particularly like. Percy will often do this: ask two opposing adjectives to get along without the help of a comma. Others include “furious affectionate,” “rapturous rebellious,” “peevish-pleasant.” In these, we get a microcosm of the whole novel, which depicts a place in barely functioning harmony.
Sometimes it doesn’t function at all. There is an awkward episode late on when Kate and Binx sit on a mezzanine and look down on one of Aunt Emily’s society dinner parties that really doesn’t work; seriously, I have no grasp on the geography of this scene. The humour we get at the expense of Mercer also sits uneasily. Apart from that, though, I struggle to think of a reason why The Moviegoer is not in the first rank of novels. It did for me what DeLillo (to come back to him) fails to do for me: discuss big ideas with wit and warmth.
The Moviegoer is published by Methuen and is available here.