It has only the barest bones of plot: It is the first-person narrative of Binx Bolling in the week leading up to Mardi Gras, as well as Binx' thirtieth birthday. He is a stockbroker in the suburbs of New Orleans, pleased with his lot but overcome with strange existential angst, finally waking up one morning and deciding that he must go on "the search"--but the search for what? Percy is never so unsubtle to supply the answer to this, though in many ways it seems that it is the sort of thing that Binx will only be able to identify when he finds it. It reminded me of Rabbit, Run, where Rabbit tells the Reverend Eccles that there must be a "thing behind things." Is it God? God, as much as He can be a member of any set, is a part of it, but pinning it down seems beyond even Percy's well-honed authorial grasp.
Binx calls himself a "moviegoer" because--well, obviously--he goes to a lot of movies, but the significance of this is that in some way films anchor and validate existence. Here is a passage in which Binx and his foil, a distant cousin named Kate whose angst is greater than Binx', go to see a film:
There is a scene which shows the very neighborhood of the theater. Kate gives me a look--it is understood that we do not speak during the movie.
Afterwards in the street, she looks around the neighborhood. "Yes, it is certified now."
She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside of him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
I think this insight is particularly cunning--who among well-traveled people hasn't thought that the experience of a film seems more real than their own experiences? My mental image of Piazza San Marco in Venice is constructed of as much--if not more--the numerous depictions of it in film as my own experience there. There is something validating, certifying about films that informs our own experience and soothes our own existential angst.
I made a casual agreement with an old teacher of mine; if he would read Lolita, I would read this book. I hadn't been looking forward to it, because I tried to read it once in high school and barely got past the first few pages (which I thought were mind-numbing) and I brought it back to the library. I think I lucked out to some extent; I don't know that I would have been able to sympathize with Binx Bolling in high school--that is to say, at least in my experience, the peculiar kind of despair that Binx possesses doesn't occur until the teenage years are coming to a close. I appreciate much more now than I would have then, and I highly recommend it.