Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Review: The Thanatos Syndrome


I'm finally starting to get Walker Percy. After reading three or four of his previous novels, and one of his non-fiction works, I started in on The Thanatos Syndrome and thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, a first for me. That's not to say it's a perfect work -- it may be the most imperfect of all his novels -- but it's ambitious, dream-like, and a little off. That made me like it more.

You may have heard of psychological thrillers, perhaps? This is a psychiatric thriller. The main action involves what happens to a community when science meddles with brain function to make people happier. There's clandestine plans, government plots, chemicals in the ecosystem and showdowns with guns. But it's not Dan Brown by any stretch of the imagination. It's not really about the action, or about wacky historical theories, it's really about us and how we should look at ourselves.

As the book unfolds, some of the stuff that happens is truly horrible, and though a few sentences made me laugh out loud, there just wasn't enough humor, not as much as usual for Percy. Part of the plot involves separating people from their self-perceptions, resulting in disconnections of the psyche, so it's too bad the novel is also so messy, because you can argue that the plot itself is disconnected. How can you argue against disconnectedness with a disconnected plot? But what makes it work for me is that the author is a Catholic with an interpretive lens for understanding the entire twentieth century and I'm always a sucker for that kind of ambition. I think he deserves to be heard, even in this post-Cold-War, post-post-modern world.

I read this along with Don Miller's book (see previous posts), and that might be why Miller's book seemed a little too simplistic in its view of human nature. Percy's view is as complex as the South itself (the region that formed him). Next to Percy's daring and broad theories, Miller's, for all his caveats, looks doctrinaire, gentle, and surprisingly mundane. That's OK, really -- I just hope to see Miller continue to develop and tilt at more windmills. Percy wrote this book in his seventies (and died in 1990), so Miller's got time to catch up.

It's hard to recommend this book on some levels, but on others, it's impossible for me not to recommend it. It's easier to understand the cultural references from the 80's than those from the 60's/70's in his other books, so it might be a good "starter Percy", but on the other hand, its major flaws mean it may not be!

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