Walker Percy is that rarest of all American writers, a philosophical novelist. Among philosophical novelists of the twentieth century (Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, for example), he is rarer still, for his existentialism is Christian rather than atheistic, and his method is decidedly comic in two senses of the word: It is satirically humorous, and it tends toward the realm of spiritual harmony typified by Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1320).
Percy’s novels detail the existential predicament in which post-Christian man finds himself: lost in the cosmos. The protagonists of Percy’s five novels are all lost: in the microcosms of New Orleans (The Moviegoer, 1961); New York City, the South and Southwest (The Last Gentleman, 1966); the ruins of Paradise Estates (Love in the Ruins, 1971); a Louisiana plantation transmogrified into a movie set and a room or cell in a center for aberrant behavior (Lancelot, 1977); and finally Lost Cove Cave (The Second Coming, 1980), where Percy’s befuddled hero demands that God make an appearance. What distinguishes Percy’s protagonists, what wakes them up to their predicament, is their inability to make do in the customary ways. Inauthenticity makes them uneasy even as authenticity continues to elude them. Although Percy’s satire can be scathingly funny—Father Kev Kevin reading Commonweal while sitting at a vaginal console in a Masters and Johnson clinic in Love in the Ruins, for example—most of his writing is tempered by compassion for his lost characters and their fumbling attempts to discover their authentic selves. At the same time, as the Swiftian satire suggests, they try the patience and good humor of the author, who, nearly forty years ago, made his own Kierkegaardian leap from psychoanalysis to Catholicism and from the practice of medicine to the writing of novels.
However different in method, Percy’s novels and the essays collected in 1975 under the title The Message in the Bottle serve the same purpose: to record and to analyze phenomenologically the modern malaise, the pathology of the spirit. Lost in the Cosmos, a work that is neither wholly fiction nor essay does this. As its subtitle, “The Last Self-Help Book,” suggests, Lost in the Cosmos is a parody, but it is also a wry meditation on a culture given to embracing the queerest kinds of obsessions—television talk shows, newspaper horoscopes, how-to guides such as The Joy of Sex, “Dear Abby” columns, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—rather than facing up to its own spiritual poverty. The very structure of Percy’s elliptical book is designed not so much to alleviate the reader’s anxieties as to increase and so bring to consciousness his sense of dislocation. The two pages of subtitles, a kind of publicity department’s idea of a table of contents, are followed by “A Short Preliminary Quiz”: The reader must first decide whether he is lost in the cosmos, and then whether he should buy the book, a “Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz,” which includes a takeoff on Phil Donahue’s daytime television talk show, a forty-five page “intermezzo,” “A Semiotic Primer of the Self,” that, Percy notes, “can be skipped without fatal consequences,” and last, two “Space Odysseys” about the future of man following an all-out nuclear war. Throughout, there are questions, puzzles, diagrams, and alternatives but never any firm answers or resolutions; these, the book suggests, the reader must find for himself. Percy’s task is to point to and illuminate the problem, not to solve it for the reader. “The only difference between my book and Aquinas,” Percy told his publisher’s sales representatives, “is that he gave all the right answers; mine is multiple choice.”
The general problem to which Percy addresses himself is summed up in the book’s epigraph, drawn from Friedrich Nietzsche: “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves.” In Percy’s usage, “we” refers to those who have come to accept the scientific view, which holds that far from being unique, man is nothing more than an entirely understandable, responding organism situated, as are all other organisms, in a deterministic environment. That man is not merely an organism having only physiological needs should be obvious, Percy claims, to anyone who studies man’s odd behavior—for example, his preoccupation with fashionable clothing, “authentic” antiques, “meaningful” sexual relationships, and other aspects of modern consumer culture. What does the salesperson mean, Percy asks, when she fits a customer with a dress or hat and says, “It’s you”? Why are so many people in the richest nations of the world so bored and disappointed? Why do people desire so intensely to have their lives certified for them, even in so absurd a way as by hearing their hometown mentioned on the Johnny Carson...
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