Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Old-fashioned shrinks are out of style and generally out of work.  We, who like our mentor Dr. Freud believe there is a psyche, that it is born to trouble as the sparks fly up, that one gets at it, the root of trouble, the soul's own secret, by venturing into the heart of darkness, which is to say, by talking and listening, mostly listening, to another troubled human for months, years--we have been superseded by brain engineers, neuropharmacologists, chemists of the synapses.  And why not?  If one can prescribe a chemical and overnight turn a haunted soul into a bustling little body, why take on such a quixotic quest as pursuing the secret of one's very self?

Walker Percy is one of the last authors I ever expected to turn to science fiction, if that's what it is.  And to be sure, for the most part, the Louisiana of The Thanatos Syndrome resembles that of The Moviegoer: lovingly rendered, at times both exotic and banal, as full of country clubs as it is swamps.  But Percy infrequently reminds us that this world is not our own.  There are the qualitarian centers, for example, that engage in euthanasia for the very old and the very young, if they are disabled or unfit.  The modern psychopharmaceutical industry of The Thanatos Syndrome is much like ours, though it cast its shadows just a little longer.

Tom More, the "failed but not unhappy" therapist who is the novel's protagonist (and the protagonist of Percy's previous novel Love in the Ruins--why do I keep accidentally picking up his sequels?) is a traditional doctor in world that no longer seems to have a place for them.  But in his practice he begins to notice what others have not: that the people of Feliciana Parish are acting strangely.  They are taciturn, obedient, less troubled, but computer-like.  Ask them where St. Louis is, and they might tell you that it is 600 miles north of New Orleans.  And the women, for some reason, keep coming on to Dr. More by turning around and presenting their butts.

With the help of his sexy cousin (I know) Lucy Lipscomb, an epidemiologist, Tom unravels a conspiracy, concocted by his hospital associates, to flood the water supply with "heavy sodium," which reduces people to a more primitive psychological state.  The benefits are manifold: lower crime, lower drug use, fewer unplanned pregnancies.  Okay, so that last one comes about because women no longer menstruate, instead going into heat once a month like a farm animal.  But it's hard to argue with results.  But even the well-meaning conspirators are unaware that their solution is being used at the local boarding school to stupefy children, making them more amenable to sexual abuse.

The details of the child abuse Tom and Lucy uncover are as detailed as they are grotesque.  They are a reminder that The Thanatos Syndrome is more serious than a pulpy Dean Koontz novel, which the plot at times resembles.  Like The Moviegoer and The Second Coming, the novel alerts us to the importance of human psychological fragility.  Anger, hatred, lust, anxiety, and the other spiritual beasts the heavy sodium is meant to eliminate are as much a part of what it means to be human as our better angels.  A long interlude, in which a minor character talks about his experience with the Hitler Youth in Germany, reminds us that our best intentions can lead to our most monstrous actions, a criticism which is pointed directly at the Ritalin- and Prozac-hawkers of the 20th century.

The Thanatos Syndrome is tonally bizarre.  The minor characters never quite come into their own, and the sexual relationship between Tom and Lucy seems as contrived as the romances in more commercially contrived conspiracy novels.  It doesn't quite work as pulp, and it doesn't quite work as a Percy novel.  But, like its protagonist, it's happy despite, or perhaps because of its failures:

What is failure?  Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time.  Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print.  But in the movies they don't show the failures.  What you see are the takes that work.  So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way.  It looks as if real failure is unspeakable.  TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories.  Because that is not the way life is.  Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.  Life doesn't have to stop with failure.

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