In my opinion, the best books to read are the ones where I feel as if I am in the world of the book itself, experiencing life with the characters themselves. Maybe my opinion relies too heavily on my pursuit of a Creative Writing major, but even when I was younger, I realized that the more I understood the characters in a book, the more I could feel with and for them, the more I enjoyed reading a particular book.
When I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for the first time about a year ago, it was hard for me to relate to Binx Bolling, the main character, as he went about his quotidian life, searching for meaning of it, in New Orleans. I had never been to New Orleans when I read the book for the first and knew very little about the social and political dynamics as well as the history of the city, especially in the mid 20th Century, so I struggled when I tried to place myself in Binx’s world.
However, I finally felt as if I could understand the locations and settings in the book more when I read it the second time around after spending nearly two weeks in New Orleans. Although I still realized that I felt detached from Binx as a character because I found minimal connection with a white male, a fraternity brother of the Deltas, living in New Orleans in the middle of the 20th Century as a stock trader who goes through his secretaries one by one, I decided that at least my understanding of the place that the book brings to life was clearer this time.
I felt as if I could see the places in my head, mainly because I normally could visualize Binx's Aunt's house in the Garden District of the city or Galatoire's Restaurant that is referenced in the book. While the setting came to life, I still thought that Binx and I were completely dissimilar.
The Moviegoer follows Binx Bollings as if the character himself had his own reality TV show-- Binx struggles to find love with any one of his secretaries but eventually marries his cousin, he is isolated from the world and oftentimes watches movies alone and he is the older half brother to a number of younger half siblings. Throughout the book, Binx grapples with situations that I have never even imagined.
But then, after I finished reading the book for the second time, I took a step back and re-evaluated my relation with the book and with its main character. Although I'm not a brother of a fraternity like Binx is, I am a part of a sorority (and I got to visit my sorority's house at LSU!). While I'm not living and working in a city like New Orleans, I still go to school in Los Angeles, an equally vivacious city like New Orleans in its own way. And, like Binx, at the end of the day I'm just trying to figure out how to live life each day.
Kate, Binx's cousin and eventual wife, makes this comment about no longer pretending to understand the world. I suppose I would agree with Kate; it's too burdensome to try and understand the entire world, but it's worthwhile to try and understand parts of it. Living in New Orleans helped me to understand a city in a country of many across the globe. So, while I don't try to understand the entire world-- the psyche of every type of person, the cultures in every town, or the beliefs of every religion-- I certainly began to understand one tiny part of it.
Our time spent in New Orleans taught me a lot about the little world around me and, more specifically, I learned much more about the dynamics and cultural history of a place that is still rebuilding every day after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, located in a region of the United States that was once incredibly segregated and has gone through multiple personalities under Spanish and French rule. I feel as if I am more connected to the city in a way that helps me understand the book more than I did the first time. I do not understand everything about New Orleans or Louisiana in general in the same way that I'm not trying to understand the entire world, but over these past weeks I have gotten a much better understanding of it.
It’s one thing to be in a room, like a classroom or a hotel conference room and learn about the world outside, but it is life-changing to get outside of a room and understand the world around you first-hand. As Binx puts it:
Binx makes this comment about wandering neighborhoods and getting outside into the real world with this sense that he could escape isolation in a room and be a part of something bigger than him, which has resonated with me throughout our time spent in Louisiana. I have thoroughly enjoyed walking around the city and learning more about who I am as a person, how I interact with the world around me and how these interactions can shape my future in the same way Binx goes through his life in The Moviegoer learning about who he is and where he is going.
Clearly, I never got the sense that Binx was some heroic or remarkable main character, but he is very much a genuine and authentic person struggling to understand his identity from his interactions and love affairs with his secretaries to his relationship with his mother and half-siblings. And, not unlike a majority of modern people today, Binx relies on movies and film to help ground him in his exploration of self, which makes for an aptly named book title. Walker Percy writes about neighborhood, about place and about identity and its relation and almost reliance on cinema:
While I was reading this book, I had an such an intensified sense of place when I found that I could orient myself in the city much better. I wanted to get outside the book, or the room I was in, and experience what Binx could have experienced, and especially wanted to experience his love for moviegoing and idolization of classic Hollywood celebrities such as William Holden. So, I looked up old movie theaters and found The Prytania theatre, which had been referenced in another book that we have read for this class, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and was amazed that a classic movie was soon to be shown, and it was a very relevant classic movie to our class: “King Creole” starring the one and only Elvis Presley. We made arrangements to visit the theater and watch the 1958 movie which was so incredible, not only because I love classic film and anything related to pop culture in the 20th Century, but also because I could imagine Binx sitting in a similar one-screen movie theater watching a black and white film on the screen and my relation to The Moviegoer was much more palpable after we saw the classic film.
Watching scenes on the screen at the Prytania Theatre that were shot in the French Quarter was mesmerizing: I was able to visualize and see places in New Orleans that I have repeatedly visited, like the French Quarter, back in time, the middle of the past century. I even felt as if I had a good sense of direction and knew where I was just by watching the on-location scene play out on the screen. Had I not ventured out into New Orleans multiple and repeated times, I do not think I would be as receptive to Binx’s plight trying to learn more about himself in an oftentimes chaotic world of New Orleans as much as I did. Binx, and consequentially Walker Percy, also understands the power of repetition:
You cannot truly understand any part of the world if you read about it once, or if you hear about it just once. Take a hint from Binx Bolling and venture outside of the place you're in to experience the world around you to learn more about it but also, to learn more about yourself.
Here are some foods that I tried for the first time in New Orleans: oysters, muffuletta and beignets.