Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Percy has a considerable affinity with the religious existentialist Søren Kierkegaard and for Dostoevski’s peculiar vision of human absurdity and moral chaos. He received the 1971 National Catholic Book Award for Love in the Ruins. Something of a madcap masterpiece, this satire was a popular success, though some critics prefer the more subtle humor of Percy’s later novel The Second Coming (1980), which also deals with love, mental illness, moral confusion, and the blundering spiritual quest. The later book also develops more precisely a minor theme of Love in the Ruins: the way in which the misuse of language contributes to popular mindlessness and alienation. Percy shares the contemporary intellectual interest in semantics and semiotics. In both Love in the Ruins and The Second Coming, he tends to emphasize the antic absurdities of clichés and jargon that define contemporary attitudes, though not the sinister intent behind what George Orwell called Doublethink.

Percy’s concern for language is both moral and professional. The specifically human world, often quite different from the empirical world of sense experience, is created by the words used to describe it. Percy is concerned not so much with the deliberate villains of society but with the limitations of goodness in well-intentioned people who cannot “name” reality and thus do not know it. Percy recognizes this difficulty in himself as a “Christian novelist,” for he knows that the Christian message, as ordinarily expressed, is a tired anachronism in the modern world. For a discussion of this ironic difficulty of the writer, one should read Percy’s The Message in the Bottle (1975), especially the chapter entitled “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” which is especially relevant to Love in the Ruins. For further satiric comment on the American way of love and sex, the section on “The Promiscuous Self,” in Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), is both provocative and entertaining.