Walker Percy’s Galaxy Quest
“[I]t is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint, which also helps explain the appeal to mainstream writers such as Walker Percy of the post-apocalyptic story, whose themes of annihilation and re-creation are so easily indexed both to the last book of the New Testament and first book of the Old. It’s hard to imagine the author of Love in the Ruins writing a space opera.”
—Michael Chabon, “Dark Adventure: On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”
Except that he did—sort of. Embedded in Lost in the Cosmos—a mishmash of self-help guide, choose-your-own adventure essay, talk-show parody, and linguistic treatise—is a hypothetical space opera (Peter Lawler calls it a “space odyssey”; that may be more appropriate) that follows the adventures of Marcus Aurelius Schuyler and his crew of women as they journey into space and back to Earth. Mind you, they find, on their return, a post-apocalyptic planet and one of Schuyler’s alternatives involves rebuilding civilization at Lost Cove, Tennessee, and this story is far too incomplete an artifice to be called a “novel” or “novella” proper. But it remains a story, and the author of Love in the Ruins found a need to use the space opera as its framework.
Of Percy’s six novels, three, perhaps would fall under a broad understanding of “post-apocalyptic”: Love in the Ruins is a satire, narrated by an escapee from a mental institution who begins his story while covered in hives from an allergic reaction to the albumen in the gin fizzes he spends the novel drinking, only pausing to knock back a few fingers of Early Times. He thinks the world is nearing its end; it’s never entirely clear which parts of his story “happened” as narrated. Lancelot is told by a genuine madman—but this a darker kind of satire. Its narrator chooses to bring about his own fiery apocalypse and is left to piece together a narrative he can’t remember. Then there is the Thanatos Syndrome, more pre- than post-apocalyptic, more “thriller” than literary, artistically the black sheep of Percy’s oeuvre.
On the other hand, we have Percy’s first two novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, straightforwardly “realistic” works. (For reasons that will take us too far off track, I’d place The Second Coming somewhere in between—the world clearly isn’t coming to an end, but its questionably sane protagonists may or may not disagree.) It is because of these two works, the former in particular, that Percy’s style is commonly linked to the mid-century European existentialist novel. That is fair enough, especially since Percy and the existentialists share common progenitors in Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. But Percy was never interested in the individual alone; he complained about being given a manuscript in which the only character spent 50 pages lying in bed, thinking, to whose author he offered the advice that a character must do something. He was interested in language, or, more precisely in the ways people—characters—communicate. So he takes Binx Bolling and Will Barrett and sends them into the world—ultimately on the road—in search of something. These two novels are quest stories, and it is into this category, as well as the genre of science fiction, that Schuyler’s tale properly falls.
While Binx Bolling takes the train from New Orleans to Chicago and back, and Will Barrett follows the interstate from New York to Alabama to New Mexico, Schuyler and crew travel for eighteen years from Earth to Barnard’s Star and back again, landing in New Mexico and traveling to either Europa or Lost Cove, Tennessee. The yarn itself is shorter, but the scale—distance, technology, time, urgency—has increased dramatically. He pushes the story into space to alienate us from it in a way that even his chaotic, satirical post-apocalyptic writing does not. We’re suddenly watching the story unfold, as if on a TV that we’re half-paying attention to (as, earlier in Lost in the Cosmos, the narrative dives into The Phil Donahue Show). The characters are not us, or you, or me—until (sometimes through direct authorial address, sometimes through a well-placed detail) the light in the room changes and you see your own face reflecting on the screen, superimposed over Schuyler’s story. In the way of well-told stories, it distances us from those it depicts, only to bring us suddenly closer so that we can see, without the interfering static of the “real,” not just how they are like us, but how we are like them. (And, in the case of Percy and Lost in the Cosmos, glimmerings of our ways of communicating and relating in theirs.)
This was all to say that if Chabon had been willing to give Percy a more generous reading (I sense a hesitancy toward Percy’s Thomist tendencies and skepticism of progress), he could have strengthened his case about genre and literature. I mean, this doctor-turned-writer with a side-habit in semiotics turns—of all things—to a brief star trek in order to illustrate to his linguistic case for God, or at least for meaning.