Monday, October 18, 2021

A Diagnostic Novel

The Thanatos Syndrome
The Thanatos Syndrome 

“he believed that there is no end to the mischief and hatred which men harbor deep in themselves and unknown to themselves and no end to their capacity to deceive themselves and that though they loved life, they probably loved death more and in the end thanatos would likely win over eros.”   ― Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

The return of Dr. Tom More brings with it an unusual forensic mystery story intertwined with the mystery of belief. One would not expect less from the pen of Walker Percy.  While a common criticism of Walker Percy's novels is that they are repetitive, this is probably because similar themes echo throughout his fiction -- no doubt a testimony to the novelist's fervent belief in the importance of highlighting key problems and issues of humanity, and to his belief that their continued presence in our lives demands scrutiny. We see this from the opening pages when the narrator announces that he notices something strange going on in Feliciana upon his return from two years in prison.

Percy, who himself had medical and pathology training, described this kind of philosophical book as a "diagnostic novel." Although the emphasis is clearly on the book's ideas and moral themes, The Thanatos Syndrome is also a medical thriller. As such, it was almost inevitable that the author would revisit a theme that he dealt with on numerous occasions in earlier novels: the relationship between the "abnormal" and the rest of the nominally healthy and sane society. The recovery of the "real" through pain, suffering, or illness underlies almost all of Percy's fiction. It is rooted in his conviction (with a nod to pioneer psychologist Carl Jung), that at least some of our neuroses, psychoses, anxieties, or depressions may be more than just symptoms; they may actually be resources for learning something about our inner "selves."

The relationship between the sane and the abnormal in the novel seems curiously reversed, almost like in Saul Bellow's Herzog. It has been noted that the author himself described his fictional design as combining Bellow's depth of character and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s, outrageousness and satire. In The Thanatos Syndrome words of apocalyptic warning are spoken by Father Rinaldo Smith, an aging, decrepit, and cranky priest who is given to seizures, catatonia, and bouts of odd behavior. While he is hardly a figure to command respect, Smith is a typical Percy creation whose purpose is to make us question who really deserves to be branded as "crazy."

The theme of alienation is also important in this work. Dr. Tom More's return from federal prison has him unsure if society has changed or if, instead, he has lost touch as a result of his years in prison. His alienation and status as an outsider allow him to ask questions that no one else cares to. Father Smith, declared mentally unsound by More, appears to have a firmer grasp on morality than does society, as represented by the duo of Comeaux and Van Dorn, both of whom represent the forces of evil.

Although the novel is in some ways structured as a thriller, the reader never gets the impression that More is in serious danger. The threats against him are subtle: implied loss of his favored parole status, arrests for trespassing, and a cable television van that appears to be following him. The subtlety of the threats underscores the idea that society as a whole can be attacked nonviolently, with damage done before anyone realizes the danger. I found this concluding novel of Percy both convincing due to its strong structure while not as emotionally powerful as either The Moviegoer or The Second Coming. I would, however, recommend it to readers interested in southern fiction or Walker Percy.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Strange Journeys

In a Free State
In a Free State 

All at once the lilies lost their brightness; it grew dark below the trees; the swamped garden was silent.  The stream raged on.  On the other bank tree trunks were black in the gloom; leaves and branches hung low.  The wood of a fairy tale, far from home: what was so recently man-made, after the forests had been cut down and the forest-dwellers flushed out and dismissed, what had perhaps been intended only as an effect of art in a landscape made secure, had become natural.  It spoke of the absence of men, danger." (p 128)

Nominally a novel, but actually more like a collection of short stories, In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul is in this way different than other works of Naipaul that I have read. But in other ways it is similar and even better than the others. This is primarily because all the five stories are linked thematically and they share Naipaul's beautiful prose style.

The novel includes stories that are all about people who find themselves in places where they feel, or are made to feel, that they don’t belong; the stories are about boundaries, purity, pollution, incommensurability and just plain strangeness. In the opening prologue, the presence of an English tramp on a Greek ferry causes uproar. The second story tells of an Indian servant who tries to adjust to a new life in Washington D.C. Next, in a story that demonstrated a striking voice with a melancholy that I found disturbing, a South Asian West Indian immigrant in London reflects on the ruins of his life. His relationship with boy he is helping deteriorates as he slowly realizes the failure of the boy to live up to his naive ideal.

The final story, “In a Free State,” is equally pessimistic. In it, Bobby and Linda share a car ride from the capital, in the northern part of the African country, to the so-called Southern Collectorate, where Bobby works and where Linda will rejoin her husband. Ethnic rivalries within the country make this journey perilous because the president, whose politically and militarily dominant people control the north, has set up roadblocks to apprehend the king, whose weaker people populate the south.

The basic conflict between the two characters concerns their attitude toward Africa: Bobby, a homosexual who suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, has emigrated to Africa and plans to make it his home. “My life is here,” he says. Linda has lived in the country for six years and considers it an exciting place for her and her husband to work, but she intends to go to South Africa, if it ever stops being “like a John Ford Western.” Her attitude suggests that Europeans can never be accepted in black African society. In the epilogue an Asian businessman travelling through Milan and Cairo reflects on cruelty and empire.

While I found interesting aspects to all the shorter stories, In a Free State clearly stands out among the lot. While neither of the two main characters are appealing, the contrast between the self-deluding Bobby, who claims to have some sort of authentic connection with “Africa,” and the cynical, weary Linda is very effective. They wear their prejudices on their sleeves, so to speak, and only differ in tone and personality. More effective for me was the setting and the use of description to maintain a tension that suggested (not unlike a Hitchcock thriller) the presence of horror just around the bend. Whether you agree with the view represented in these stories about the difficulty of adjusting your being to a new place and a different culture you can, through the graceful prose style of V. S. Naipaul, enjoy the book.