Last summer, I wrote a column reviewing a trio of films about the apocalypse – two very serious dramas and a low-key comedy that all ended with the extinction of life as we know it. You know – classic summer movie fare.
Karl Marx didn’t get much right, but his observation that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, has come into play this summer with the release of two comedies that play the apocalypse for laughs. This Is The End features a cast of actors and comedians playing themselves, a gang of Hollywood party boys whose evening is ruined when the earth splits open, fire rains from the sky, and monsters walk the earth, leaving them to argue about who gets the last Milky Way bar.
Rapture-Palooza features the full range of biblical catastrophe – plagues of taunting locusts, raining blood, and the arrival of the Beast to usher in the end times, all played for wry laughs as its cast of Midwestern characters blandly process it all through weary sarcasm and reality television. It hasn’t been released yet as I write this, but it looks like one of those films whose trailer probably contains all the big laughs.
A year ago, I wondered why we – or at least the movie industry – were suddenly obsessed with the end of the world. It made sense when I was younger, during the final decades of the Cold War, when nuclear Armageddon was on everyone’s mind. But in a time when mainstream culture at least has become more aggressively secular, our irrepressible urge to stare down our extinction seems at best morbid and adolescent, at worst a public embrace of the sin of despair.
I began to wonder if there was a healthy, or at least vaguely hopeful way of staring down the end times, when I came across a copy of Walker Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins in a used bookshop. Subtitled “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World,” it sounded like it was written with me in mind, as I often feel like I’m at least a semifinalist in the unofficial competition for World’s Worst Catholic.
I’m a big fan of Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer, the story of a man whose aimlessness and spiritual confusion, mediated through avid film-going, was so much like my life from teens to 30s that I re-read it every decade or so to check on my progress. Like his earlier book, Love in the Ruins is told from the perspective of a wholly unreliable narrator, albeit an older man whose existential crisis is mirrored by the one that’s tearing the society around him apart.
“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western World,” Percy begins the book, “I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?”
The narrator is a middle-aged doctor that Percy names Thomas More, pointedly evoking the saint and martyr by the narrator’s admission that he was “a collateral ancestor.” More is a man of very much less moral steadfastness than his ancestor, divorced, alcoholic, and mourning the death of his beloved daughter in the besieged torpor of a Louisiana suburb that sits like an island of affluence in a country in decline.
Percy describes More’s world as the “post-Auto Age,” when basic services have broken down and burned out cars and buildings litter the landscape while society still manages to go on and his neighbours live their lives with only notional concern for the impinging chaos. It’s a world where the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war between factions polarizing angrily, and the Catholic Church itself has sundered into three. Democrats, now called the Left Party, amuse themselves with porn, while the onetime Republicans, now called Knotheads, comfort themselves with showings of Flubber and The Sound of Music. All the while, young people and blacks escape into the woods and swamps to either set up communes or organize insurgencies.
Percy’s story is clearly a satire of America in the enervated wake of the ‘60s, when everyone who wasn’t celebrating the imminent destruction of the old order seemed shell-shocked at how quickly – and completely – their country had gone from prosperous unity to rancor and dissipation. Behind it all is a spiritual malaise – a sundering of the spiritual and the physical in everyone’s psyche, that More surprises himself by both diagnosing and even hoping to treat with the invention of his patented device, the Lapsometer.
Percy’s book isn’t light reading; his narrator is so confused and anguished that the reader might struggle to piece together reality as it’s described through his eyes. More than that, he’s writing from a place so tacitly Catholic that it would likely be wholly inconceivable to a young reader, or even to many modern Catholics, especially those who’ve come to understand their faith as a slightly more colourful variation on conservative Protestantism.
The divisions More tries to heal in Love in the Ruins aren’t just native to America in its polyester “malaise” period. There are passages that could just as well describe the world of today, with its bland and debased approach to sex, and the spreading circle of polarized stances on politics, race, class, economics and even art that have thrived in the world of online discourse, where every opinion, no matter how considered or misinformed, thrusts forward with almost weightless energy.
I’d like to think that a book like Love in the Ruins could find an audience today, but I doubt it. In the course of my lifetime Percy, like so many esteemed authors, has fallen into obscurity, joining names like Dos Passos, Saroyan, Maugham, Forester, Mailer, Jones, O’Hara and dozens more in dusty library stacks and paperback sales.
In Percy’s book, More confounds his colleagues by insisting on referring to the two poles of the divided human psyche as “angelism” and “bestialism.” If he were writing the book today, he might be tempted to add a third axis – the trivial.