On Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot

Walker Percy’s 1977 novel Lancelot opens with an invitation: “Come into my cell. Make yourself at home.”

The invitation is to both the reader and to the titular Lancelot’s audience of one, a friend from his college days he calls Percival. Percival listens to Lancelot’s increasingly-insane, unceasing monologue without interruption.

Lancelot Lamar—Lance, to friends—tells his story from his cell in the Center for Aberrant Behavior. It’s New Orleans, sometime in the mid-seventies. The dream of the sixties has curdled and soured, its failed would-be revolution of love turned to rot.

Lance’s (electrically-sexual) love for his wife Margot begins to sour, fester, and rot. He discovers by chance that he is not the father of their daughter Siobhan, and quickly comes to suspect that Siobhan is the product of Margot’s infidelity with Merlin, a filmmaker whom Margot, an always-aspiring actress, has known for years.

Merlin and his crew are filming at Lance’s ancestral manse, Bell Isle. Belle Isle was once a Great House in its parish, but modernity (and postmodernity) have a way of rotting out traditions. Margot, heiress to a new-money Texas fortune, restores the ancestral home to something-close-to its former glory. Belle Isle and the Lamar name might rub some good old fashioned Southern Aristocracy off on her. Despite those oil dollars, the Lamars still need to allow tour groups to visit Belle Isle—gawking Michiganders and Yankees and the like—in order to keep in the black.

Lancelot Lamar himself has long since stopped working. A one-time liberal who helped the NAACP, he trained as a lawyer, but latterly has taken to lust and drink. At the outset of his tale, our debauched wastrel spends his days in the pigeonnier of Belle Isle slurping bourbon and smoking cigs. His discovery that his daughter is not his own revitalizes him—it’s the revelation—nay, the apocalypse—that splits his life in two: “my life is divided into two parts, Before and After,” he tells Percival in cell.

Percival says all of thirteen words in the novel. Or, really, two words: twelve yeses and one no. It’s never quite clear if Percival is a failed psychiatrist or a failed priest or some hybrid of both, but we do know that Lancelot has long admired Percival since their school days, when the austere intellectual literally jumped ship to swim to a deserted island for a Thoreau-inspired think. Percival, or Lancelot’s ideation of Percival, serves not only as a confessor’s ear, but also as Lancelot’s avatar of intellectual spirituality. In contrast, visceral once-virile Lance (with his oh-so-phallic mantle) rests on his most vibrant college laurels: he once ran 110 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

But back to Lancelot of the Before and After. Specifically, the After. After discovering his wife’s apparent infidelity (infidelities?), Lance enlists the help of his retainer Elgin, the son of Belle Isle’s Black housekeepers. Elgin is an MIT student and a technical genius, a figure whose ascendancy Lancelot can understand but perhaps not fully appreciate. A scion of the South and a one-time “liberal,” Lancelot is unable to fully understand his own racism, even as he understands Elgin’s intellectual and technocratic superiority.

Still, Lancelot comprehends the failure of the 1960’s liberalism to fully follow through on its utopian promise. He relies on Elgin’s gratitude to him, but admits,

…in truth I had done very little for him, the kind of easy favors native liberals do and which are almost irresistible to the doer, if not to the done to, yielding as they do a return of benefit to one and a good feeling to the other all out of proportion to the effort expended. That was one of the pleasures of the sixties: it was so easy to do a little which seemed a lot. We basked in our sense of virtue and what we took to be their gratitude. Maybe that was why it didn’t last very long. Who can stand gratitude?

Driven by his own motives, tech-whiz Elgin sets up secret cameras all around Belle Isle as part of Lancelot’s movie-making scheme: our monologist plans to catch his wife in the act, either with Merlin or another lover. Percy’s postmodernism is subtle but effective here. We see Belle Isle through layers, a Gothic playground of both real and imaginary depravities, some staged, some extemporaneous, all set against the backdrop of the sins of the Gothic South.

Like William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, Percy’s Lancelot is a work of Gothic postmodernism. Belle Isle has been converted to a theme park version of its aristocratic past, glossed up for tourists and film crews. It’s certainly not the scene of domestic bliss.

Lancelot’s monologue starts to boil over into crazed horror, taking the reader (and his auditor Percival) into strange new spaces. Belle Isle becomes a haunted house, scene of repeated debaucheries on the cusp of disaster. The film crew prepares a massive weather machine to simulate a hurricane for their fantasy even as a massive hurricane approaches to destroy the real world. But maybe Lance, in his perverted quest, will destroy that world first.

Lancelot’s Gothic quest is for the anti-Grail, the Unholy Grail. As the novel unravels towards its crazed ending, Lancelot’s consciousness ping-pongs about in philosophical ranting. Our hero stands against postmodernity, against the nascent eighties, against the collapse of the Romantic sixties and its failed revolution. He plans a third Revolution, the final part in the trilogy initiated by the American Revolution and the Civil War. Lancelot’s increasingly unhinged screeds disturb both Percival and the reader. His apocalyptic urge for a great cleansing veers into strange, misogynistic territory.

A failed knight who cannot see his own failure, he becomes obsessed with the woman celled next to him, Anna, victim of a gang rape whom he both fetishizes and idealizes. Lancelot reads like a Southern companion to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Lance reminds one of Travis Bickle: both are strange, nihilistic, optimistic idealists, would-be knights seeking to save damsels in a fallen world, praying for some great rain to come and cleanse the filth of sin away. 

And like Taxi Driver, Percy’s novel—released around the same time, of course—seems like an early analysis of the failure of the sixties. It’s the burn out, the hangover, the realization that the dream was just a dream, and that the business of reality is cruel and cold and dirty. Perhaps insanity is the proper response.

There’s so much in Lancelot I’ve failed to unpack: Its analysis of America–North, South, and West–its treatment of Hollywood, its strange gnostic tinges, its weird tangled and often colliding philosophies. Lancelot Lamar is an enthralling monologist, witty, severe, pathetic and sympathetic, simultaneously cartoonish and ferociously real. I’ve also failed to convey how funny this novel is—Percy’s prose crackles and zaps, zips and dips, turns into weird little unexpected nooks. I ate it up.

Lancelot was the first Walker Percy novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Great stuff.

4 thoughts on “On Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot”

  1. I enjoyed The Moviegoer but when I hear people talk about the “failure of the Sixties” I have to choke back the bile. What does that even mean? We can’t even define the “Sixties” let alone what it was that “failed.” The Civil Rights movement? Feminism? Gay rights? Anti-war? Free acid? Or overnight utopia? Because anyone who believed in that fantasy was eating too much of the free acid. Talking about the “failure of the sixties” is just cheap cynicism spouted by people who want to discredit the very real sacrifices that were made for very real advances, however limited they may have been. Or worse yet, it’s a way of absolving oneself of one’s personal responsibility toward a historical struggle that has no end. But hey, it’s America, so if it doesn’t happen inside of five years it must be futile— good thing that, now I can go back to my Netflix.

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