Walker Percy was one of the few truly philosophical American novelists: he didn’t just have his characters playact out ideas, but had them embody them. Not all of his books hit the mark, but the ones that do are among the best fiction we have that has something valuable and real to say about our world. He’s also a gifted storyteller and stylist; any one of his books are a pleasure to just read for the way he uses language so spellbindingly.
Lancelot stands as one of his best and probably most misunderstood books, a mid-Seventies shotgun blast at American hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. What most people missed the first time around, though, was that Percy was not advocating the madness of the book’s protagonist. He was holding it up to the light like an X-ray film, showing how any insane philosophy, when inflated large enough, can sound almost rational, especially to those (like us) who harbor a germ of unsatisfied resentment.
The Lancelot of the title is Lance Lamar, a “disenchanted liberal lawyer” (his own words for himself) convalescing in a mental asylum after some horrible incident. His mansion has blown up and he was found burned and weeping near the building, with the corpse of his wife inside. The book takes the form of a series of monologues from Lance to his friend Percival, a childhood chum who parted ways with Lance early in life to become a Catholic minister.
By degrees Lance reveals more and more of his story, starting with a key moment when he realized his daughter Siobhan had been fathered by another man. Percy brings this and many other key technical details in the book to life with consummate mastery; he could easily have written detective fiction of the highest order with his command of minutiae. What he does, instead, is use this basic plot development as a platform upon which to build the story of Lance’s accelerating madness.
Lance, like so many others of his generation, fought the good fight of the Sixties and then collapsed into despair when he realized it was all anticlimax from there on out. He “plays at law,” working half the day and then going home to eat lunch and maybe play golf. His wife is similarly bored, and in them there’s an eerie echo of the sometimes-a-great-notion Allan Bloom’s musings about how we now have forty more years of life apiece and nothing to do with them. Lance eventually hits on something to do, all right: make a personal investigation into the nature of evil. And the way he does this, of course, is by committing evil. All of Lance’s good intentions and hard work were (or so he claims) boiled down to a job that didn’t add up to anything, and a legacy of a single college football victory that was as eternal as it was useless. What else is there to do? He would rather “die with T. J. Jackson at Chancellorsville [than] live with Johnny Carson in Burbank.”
In his cell, Lance rages against the unliveability of modern life, hating its easy sexuality, its all-soft-corners way of living, its inability to see death a genuinely threatening force instead of a sappy inconvenience. If you found something truly evil, he says, not something that can be written off as madness or sickness, what would that say about the existence of good? While a movie is being filmed in his town (Percy’s ambivalent love for the movies is in almost all his books), he gathers evidence of the sickness around him by surreptitiously filming his wife in trysts with other men.
Lance’s madness takes the form of a revelation, handed down to the “revolution of one,” as he describes himself. Men are rapists; women want to be raped; there is absolutely nothing else. He wants to smash the world he’s come to live in and replace it with something better (in his own mind, anyway), where men and women can be fully aware of the dignity or “whoredom” and choose between one or the other without the easygoing ambiguity of the Free Love Generation that surrounds him. What he ends up doing, unfortunately, lands him in the asylum, since Lance’s words are scarcely distinguishable from the rants of Charles Manson — whom, amazingly, Lance himself name-checks as as perfect example of how even murder has lost its sting.
Percy uses Lance to push our buttons about modern life, but is also careful enough to show that he’s as much a victim of his defective thinking as he is its engineer. There is a parallel subplot involving a young woman in the cell next to his, a social worker who was gang-raped and ended up losing her mind. The way it develops, and especially the way it ends — with Lance being forced to dismiss her rejection of him (for reasons I won’t spoil here) as an example of how she’s still too close to the old, corrupt ways. The very end of the book is chilling in its implications: the end may not come from decadence, it seems, but from the righteous who have half of a good idea and too many wrong ones.
Lancelot has not aged too badly, but it is unmistakably a product of the mid-Seventies, from the topical references to the angry lashing-out against consumerist America that was in vogue among novelists and filmmakers at the time. What hasn’t dimmed at all is its tone of simmering, fulminating rage, the sense that things are wrong and that it must be set a-right, no matter what the cost, and how that feeling in the hands of the unblinking can be deadly.
A lot of people, I think, are going to make the basic mistake of thinking of Lance as being “right,” or “having some valid points.” Percy does not use Lancelot as a failed hero, someone with a few good ideas who went sour. His hero is stuck in false dichotomies that he cannot see from beginning to end, and harbors vengeful, useless envy against his friend, who has simply gone on to do good works in whatever way he can. This is not someone to emulate, but someone to dissect, and by putting Lance at arm’s length in the book (he’s talking to us, but he’s not really the author, much the same way Camus did with The Fall), Percy does exactly that. Lance’s tragedy is that having been denied good by the world around him, he went looking for evil — evil he cannot find because it is within himself.