Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Short Takes: Walker Percy

I was thinking about doing a long piece on Percy, but really, what’s the point. A somewhat interesting, though very weird thinker (an oddball cross between Catholic apologetics and semiotics, of all things, check out either The Message in the Bottle or Lost in the Cosmos if that sounds interesting to you) his novels are good examples of the problem of the "idea novelist", which is basically that unless you’re the one in a million guy who can both relate ideas and tell stories, the whole thing’s going to be out of whack. And it usually works out to be on the story side of things.

The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award for some reason in 1961, has one good idea (moviegoing as a metaphor for the mediated life and the problem of existence in twentieth century America) embedded in a narrative that goes absolutely nowhere. Ditto for The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming, both of which have a lot of interesting ideas -- ideas you will better appreciate in either Message or Lost.

Percy seems to have had some sense that his story skills were lacking, and on a couple of occasions, Lancelot and The Thanatos Syndrome, actively tried to dramatize his ideas. He succeeded, sort of, in Lancelot, which is probably his best book considered as a novel. A confession of a man who kills his wife, his wife’s lover, and a couple sundry other folk, it has a kind of internal drive that a lot of Percy’s books lack, and, like Shaw (and I suspect a lot of writers) the chance to actively create an evil character -- or try to -- freed him up somewhat from the rather lugubrious characterizations that you find in, say, The Second Coming. (Lancelot is much more of a person, in other words, much less of an illustration of an idea). The book still suffers from being overly-weighed down by Percy’s hobby-horses, though, in particular an odd obsession with sexual perversion as sin. One can’t help but feel that Percy decided somewhere along the way that dammit, he had to say what he had to say, whether it threw his book off-balance or what. Thanatos is a stab at something along these lines, although it lacks the push of Lancelot and seems a lot more ham-handed all around: the book equivalent of watching your Dad try to appreciate your Slayer records.

You can probably just go without, although if you must I’d go for the two nonfiction books: Lost in the Cosmos, in particular, almost functions as an introduction to semiotics and, as such, of postmodern thought.

There’s plenty of stuff online about Percy -- knock yourself out.