Percy’s Look at a Dystopian Society
By Jeff Salter
I can’t claim that Walker Percy ever used the term “dystopian” to describe this novel or its prequel, but this pair of novels is what I thought of when we received this week’s assignment about dystopian worlds. Below is a significantly abbreviated version of a review I wrote some 30 years ago. Its complete version was published (around that time) in an edition of the LLA Bulletin.
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Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987.
Review by Jeffrey L. Salter
Walker Percy’s sixth novel, Thanatos Syndrome, is a sequel to Love in the Ruins and rejoins psychiatrist Dr. Thomas More approximately three years after the epilogue of the earlier book. Love in the Ruins, published in 1971, is set in southeastern Louisiana at a time “near the end of the world” (presumably 1983) when everything is in chaos. Society has collapsed: automobiles and machinery are abandoned because no one can repair things, freeways are overgrown with vines, and there are threats of a catastrophic end to the western world. A racial revolution is taking place with snipers, destructive raids by militants, and other isolated pockets of violence. Society is also polarized: conservatives and liberals both suffer medically, though from quite different ailments. There has been an accident involving Heavy Sodium, which has left a strange yellow cloud resulting in irregular behavior. There are also effects from Heavy Chloride exposure and some people suffer from combinations of both. The general decline of society, More believes, is caused by the effects of “noxious particles”.
More’s goal had been to win the Nobel Prize for his “lapsometer” device which restores the body with the soul. He is betrayed and his invention is abused, causing further atmospheric complications.
An epilogue is set five years later (presumably 1988) after the major crises have passed. More is poor but content. The militants have taken over the former country club, but not through revolution: their occupation of the swamp led to oil discoveries. Many have left the area: conservatives (driven mad by noxious particles) and liberals (quaking with terror).
The plot and development are quite exaggerated, which is essential to Percy’s creation of such a broad satire of society, politics, religion and science. Termed by some critics as “madcap,” Love in the Ruins is considered a significant departure from the novels which preceded it and those which followed.
In Thanatos Syndrome Percy has abandoned the broad strokes of hard-core satire in favor of a more subtle treatment of the same themes: love, moral confusion, spiritual search, and mental dysfunction. The reprise rejoins psychiatrist Dr. Thomas More (probably 1991) approximately three years after the epilogue of the earlier book. More has recently returned to “Feliciana” (Louisiana’s Florida Parishes) after two years in minimum security prison for prescription transgressions. Things have changed during his absence: many people have a flatness in manner and speech and many possess a superior capacity for out-of-context data retrieval. The racial reversal in the earlier novel has given way to a relaxed order of the “Old South.” New laws have encouraged killing the aged, the “pre-persons,” and the terminally ill instead of using treatment and therapy. More is troubled by sessions with three former patients who used to be stricken by insomnia, terror, and marital problems. No longer exhibiting their previous symptoms, they visit for favors rather than therapy. More suspects a syndrome.
The meaning of “thanatos” in Percy’s context appears to be death which is unnecessary, or an end without meaning.
More has previously observed that people are either bluebirds (mostly women) who value “being” or jaybirds (mostly men) who value “doing.” Now, he finds, “they’ve all turned into chickens” and he suspects a syndrome. More confides in Lucy Lipscomb, a distant relative, who has computer access to almost every significant electronic databank in the region. Together they discover a distinct pattern of heavy sodium contamination of the bloodstream. This contamination was not caused by an accident (as in the earlier novel) but is a deliberate experiment using waste coolant from a nuclear plant. This pilot program, dubbed “Blue Boy,” is not sanctioned by any of the agencies whose funding and resources are used: it is the result of “aberrant local initiative.”
The project directors (Van Dorn and Comeaux) cite positive social results, including: decline in crime rate, reduction of teenage pregnancies, and superbrains in computation and recall. More objects on the grounds of civil rights: “You’re assaulting the cortex of an individual…” without his knowledge or consent. The directors want More on their team for his expertise in isotope brain pharmacology and to neutralize his objections. In spite of their warnings, More investigates the waste sodium pipeline and is arrested. He is confined near Angola and is threatened with return to an Alabama prison for parole violation. But More’s concerns are about other matters: eliminating the sodium contamination and rescuing children from wide-spread sexual abuse by a private school faculty.
More devises a rescue plan which he hopes will also force Van Dorn to abandon the project. The rescuers find photos and video tapes showing sexual abuse, but those will not suffice as legal evidence, so More forces the faculty to ingest highly concentrated sodium. The effects on them are not only comical, but are sufficiently extreme to cause the sheriff to confine them. Later, through a mixture of ingenuity and subtle blackmail, More is able to convince Comeaux and Gottlieb to terminate the contamination project.
As the novel closes, things are basically back to pre-sodium normal: More is indecisive again and has no patients, his wife is “her old tart, lusty self,” and the societal effects are reversing. In the final scene, a former patient seeks treatment because she’s had a recurrence of her old terror.
In the earlier novel, More was a bemused erstwhile survivalist with three girl friends, a supply of liquor, a roomful of bland canned goods and a carbine for protection. He seemed to drift in and out of situations and he was prone to alcoholic stupors and “morning terror.”
This new More is mostly sober and he emerges at the proper time as a man of action. He’s rumpled and ill-kempt and he still has frailties: his sinuses run at inopportune times and he is liable to while away idle time tossing paper airplanes. But when others do not perceive a problem, he pinpoints a syndrome; when others are hesitant and without hope, he formulates a plan and challenges the Mississippi in a pirogue. This is not the same scalp-tingled More who collapses in sand traps and examines the contents of his pockets for clues about himself.
Like many of Percy’s main characters, More is seeking and he determines fairly early that he is “on to something.” During his quest, More transcends his professional lethargy and personal indecision; when the crisis is over he returns, somewhat renewed, to his unique status quo.
The hallmarks of Percy’s fiction are his development of characters. Percy’s description of mannerisms his depiction of dialogue is superb, whether the character is a local bartender or a federal project director.
Father Smith returns from the earlier novel as a very different person who now holes up in a fire tower. More visits Smith and quickly notes he has “the super-sane chipperness of the true nut” — he is concerned about the loss of meaning in words and whether they “signify.” Smith tells a lengthy tale about a teenage visit to pre-war Europe and confesses he was so intoxicated with the esprit of the German SS that he would have joined them. More is led to perceive some “lesson” about the experiments and thinking of prominent pre-WWII scientists and doctors. There are certain parallels with the society More reenters: the legalized killing, the effects of the sodium project, and the attitudes of the directors. There are obvious conclusions that if the Reich’s experiments could develop into something so unspeakable, perhaps these “well-meaning” bureaucrats and their projects could become equally monstrous.
Many critics have labeled Percy’s other novels as “comic realism” or “philosophical comedy” and comedy is certainly present in his newest work. One particularly humorous part occurs between More and Lucy as they investigate the suspected syndrome. There is a good bit of banter between them: she is very suggestive and physical while he feigns naïveté and tries to sound businesslike. As she manipulates her computer, the verbal interplay has many double entendres and is nearly electric with sexual tension.
Right after More and Lucy discover the sodium syndrome, he takes a drink in her dining room; he becomes disoriented and practically immobile, so Lucy helps him up to the bedroom. She obviously has more on her mind than merely tucking him in, and it appears the distant cousins have one or more sexual unions. Intermittently during the night his mind wanders and the episode takes on the rambling dimensions of a Faulknerian dream with some sort of collective subconscious. Upon awakening More realizes most of his delirious visions were not real. What IS real is the taste in More’s mouth of Lucy’s tobacco. He obviously has a shy desire for Lucy and it’s a shame that when they “get together” he is too delirious to concentrate.
Percy uses characters More and Smith to ruminate over some of his own pet subjects: alienation, semiotics, malaise, clichés and jargon… plus the author’s own observations on people, places, and meanings. With More and Smith as narrators, Percy has an enviable position much like a TV sports color commentator: far enough away to see all the action, access to close-up and “slo-mo” technology, and time to philosophize about all of it.
Percy was – I believe – Louisiana’s most notable resident author and he was certainly among a small handful of America’s outstanding writers. He may well be the most readable of the “quality” fiction writers, and his body of work should definitely prevail long after his contemporaries are forgotten. Percy is much more of a poet than he would probably admit: he has the art of telling us more about ourselves (and others) than we thought anyone knew, and he says it with a wink and a smile.
[JLS # 357]