Walker Percy’s Weirdest Book

Walker Percy died 20 years ago today. He is best known as the author of The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1962, beating out amazingly stiff competition like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, along with novels by J.D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Richard Yates. Percy—in his mid-40s when The Moviegoer, his first novel, was published—was a Southerner who railed against racism, a Christian who distrusted fundamentalism, and a shy person who became famous. He was also very funny.

Easily the strangest book he wrote was Lost in the Cosmos, which is shelved among the nonfiction but is actually an indescribable concoction of hard facts and wild imagination, a parody of self-help books (sort of), a philosophy textbook (kind of), and a collection of short stories, quizzes, diagrams, thought experiments, mathematical formulas, made-up dialogue, ridiculously long chapter titles, and a few David Foster Wallace-worthy footnotes. It’s honestly great, or possibly terrible, depending on your level of patience for Percy’s stew of literary high jinks.

I’m in the first camp, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this. That said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the section about sex in space, or the conversation between Dr. Betty and a chicken, or the diagram titled “The Decayed Orbit of the Lay Freudian.” Not that I’m complaining. As for the multiple-choice questions that make up much of the book, there is no answer key in the back, even though the questions often end with “check one” in parentheses.

An example:

Question: Do Chicagoans in Burbank, California, applaud at the mention of the word Chicago
(a) Because they are proud of Chicago?
(b) Because they are boosters, Chamber of Commerce types, who appreciate a plug, much as a toothpaste manufacturer would appreciate Carson mentioning Colgate?
(c) Because a person, particularly a passive audience member who finds himself in Burbank, California, feels himself so dislocated, so detached from a particular coordinate in space and time, so ghostly, that the very mention of such a coordinate is enough to startle him into action? (Check one)

This question is from a page-long chapter with the title “The Nowhere Self: How the Self, Which Usually Experiences Itself as Living Nowhere, is Surprised to Find that it Lives Somewhere.” Another chapter is titled “The Demoniac Self: Why it is the Autonomous Self becomes Possessed by the Spirit of the Erotic and the Secret Love of Violence, and how Unlucky it is that this should have Happened in the Nuclear Age.”

At least he tells you what you’re in for.

A lot of the source material for Lost in the Cosmos can be found in another book by Percy called The Message in the Bottle, which is a much more straightforward affair, consisting of essays he published in various small journals over the years. The essays are interesting enough if a little repetitive (a fault he admits in the preface), but it’s nowhere near as memorable: The Message in the Bottle is to Lost in the Cosmos as It’s a Small World is to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Other notable questions from Lost in the Cosmos:

  • Why is it no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep.
  • Do you understand sexuality?
  • Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stagestruck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God.
  • Maybe these are intriguing topics or maybe they’re annoying. Either Lost in the Cosmos is profound or it’s the book equivalent of somebody encouraging you to, like, really think about how each tree use to be a seed, man. Or maybe it’s the flat-out weirdest nonfiction book by one of the great novelists of the last century. (Check one)

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