Email From Jess Walter

Jess Walter is a novelist who lives and writes in Spokane and frequents a coffeeshop I stumble into some mornings after I drop my daughter off at her pre-school across the street. Jess hangs out at this coffeshop and plays chess with a semi-retarded urban real estate developer named Stevie. Jess himself seems to be a good sport and a generous soul in addition to being a writer of considerable talent. His latest novel, The Zero, a Kafkaesque take on the aftermath of 9/11, was nominated for the National Book Award and probably should have won. His previous novel, Citizen Vince, won the Edgar Award and is currently being adapted by Richard Russo for HBO. His two novels before that are pretty damned fine as well. Jess reads a lot, too, as evidenced by the running list he maintains, a tidy little blog of sorts, on his website. So when I invited him to join the Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub’s reading of Lost in the Cosmos, he — having read and liked a Walker Percy novel or two or three in the past — agreed to join in the fun. Here’s Jess’s first report and my reply:

So I’m finding Lost in the Cosmos pleasantly unreadable. At first, I thought it was just that it was dated (A 12-page sendup of Donahue? Donahue?) But it’s also so repetitious and seems to build on the faultiest of logic (How is it we know more about Saturn than ourselves … uh, we don’t … And how is it we can zoom past Mars at precisely the right moment but we don’t know what we’ll do that day? … What? How is it that an orange peel is orange while a car accident is noisy?)

And parodying a self-help book seems sort of pointless. Everything that I like in Percy’s fiction seems missing here. But I’m only eighty pages in, so maybe it’ll redeem itself, although I don’t hold out much hope for what’s around the next bend: a theoretical intermezzo that can be skipped without consequence.

That said, I am enjoying myself. Honestly, reading an ambitious failure is almost as fun as reading a successful book. And the fact that the book fairies dropped the thing in my car helps greatly.

The Critical Self

My reply: Well, you’re not the first to react thusly to the book. Your response echoes much of the initial critical response to the book. And the literary quality of the novels is of a different, more refined order, no doubt about it. (On the other hand, my co-blogger Quin Finnegan makes the case for calling the book a novel that out-Vonneguts Vonnegut.) The space odysseys might redeem it for you if you make it to the end. Maybe not, though.

The logic of the stuff at the outset might seem faulty, but it all hinges on the intermezzo material. We know more about Saturn because it is defined by dyadic relationships, whereas the self is defined by the much more mysterious triadic phenomenon of language. It’s Peirce’s triad that frames all of the freakishness and foibles of the self.

It might, furthermore, be the case that you really do need to see yourself as lost — in at least approximately the way Percy posits the lostness — in order to resonate with the book. Which may be another way of saying maybe it’s a litmus test for die-hard Percy fans.

Anyway thanks for the report. It’s mighty nice of you to read the book just because it slipped out of my hands and landed in your car.*

* Jess drives an old convertible, the same model car JFK was riding in when he got shot, into which I dropped a paperback copy of Lost in the Cosmos, just as a street evangelist might drop a Chick Tract into such a car in hopes of winning a soul for Jesus.


  1. Rather than making it ‘dated’ I found that the Donahue stuff anchored it in a very specific spot in time. (the Donahue stuff is dead-on and hilarious…but I should admit that I spent far too many hours watching Donahue in my younger years. Those without a certain amount of exposure to his style would certainly miss a great deal of the humor) I vaguely recall trying to read Lost in the Cosmos when it was a ‘new’ book but I don’t think I finished it. My brain was a bit addled by birthing 3 babies in 3 years and when the ‘self-help’ was not immediately apparent I think it went back to the library. I think I was looking for another Love in the Ruins and was disappointed.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Update from Jess: “I can see it out-Vonnegutting Vonnegut. It does have that playfulness. One difference is that Vonnegut takes the complex and renders it simple and humanistic (when this works, it’s brilliant; when it doesn’t, and Vonnegut often didn’t, it feels facile). In here, Percy is taking simple concepts, running them (from my vantage) through bad research and faulty logic strings and equations and rendering the simple … (Why do Americans prefer sexual variety–the only possible answer being j–maddeningly complex.) … needlessly rococo.

    This chapter also illustrates the weird research. To establish the point he wants us to think about, he attributes information twice to “a recent survey” then “a sexologist on a talk show” then “according to the president of the North American swinging club” (who says that swinging couples divorce only 6 percent of the time–urban myth alert), etc … sources of decreasing reliability … all building a card house that Americans are far more sexually active, promiscuous and adventurous than before, a point that the Romans, most other cultures, the Masai tribe, and Kinsey would laugh pretty heartily at.

    And I will make it to the end. I love being in book clubs and, as I said, the most interesting books are the successes and the big failures. I’m interested to see where he goes (and to encounter more thought experiments asking me to ponder whether I’d rather be Mickey Rooney at a party or Johnny Carson. Come on, man. It’s 1983. I can see Donahue but Mickey Rooney? Here’s a thought experiment. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, Walker. Go see a 1983 movie. Go see Blade Runner for god’s sake.)”

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Ellyn: Thanks for sticking up for the book. I figured hordes of Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub members would leap to its defense. Where are you, dear readers? I guess I’ll have to take a stab at refuting Mr. Walter myself.

    Faulty logic, bad research, dated references. You aim right for the knees, man. But Percy’s still standing on his satirical legs. That’s the key: this is satire, goofing around, with a serious argument underneath all the bobbing and weaving; but it’s more like Muhammad Ali — float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — than Anderson Cooper with his staff of fact-checkers and and sound-bite logic trimmers. It doesn’t matter whether the “research” tidbits are spurious or made up or based in urban legend. All that stuff is just by way of mocking the self-help book format, a small part of the fun Percy is having. It’s not at all essential to what Percy is constructing in the first section of the book, which is more like a Swiftian ink bomb than a house of cards.

    As for the dated references which were even dated when the book came out in 1983, for me that contributes another layer or texture to the strange and wonderful patina of edginess, humor, intelligence — and, yes, humanity — that radiates from the book.

    Finally, you seem to accuse Percy of being too “rococo” as well as too simplistic in his treatment of sexuality in the “Promiscuous Self” section. You can’t have it both ways. Percy anticipates your Romans, your “most other cultures,” your Masai and your Kinsey. I don’t see how they’ll be laughing at him, when he’s included all of them in the possible answers to the question — and maybe the truth is sex is in fact just that rococo.

  4. Great response. I’ll wade further into the book before I dare expose myself further as guest Klub Krank. (And I hope my criticism of the book isn’t taken badly … it’s fun for me, but I don’t want to make anyone mad.)

    But responding to your response, my original point–the low-hanging fruit of satirizing a self-help book–might be part of my problem. The best satire is usually about something we hold in high stature, and the very best is about something we worship, something we love. The power of satire is often (not always) directly related to the weight and import of the target. Look at Voltaire’s targets, or at Swift’s. Self-help books? Weak pinata, that. More a candidate for parody than satire. (Thought experiment: Which sounds more promising as satire–A game show on which Paris Hilton is a contestent or the state funeral of Bill Clinton?)

  5. Oh, and I fear it was my dashes, commas, colons and other punctuation that made it seem as if I was saying he was simple and rococo. What I meant to say is that, from my vantage, he takes something simple and through faulty logic and specious research appears to make it needlessly complex.

  6. Rufus McCain says

    I guess I was extrapolating the simplistic part — from what was probably a valid and unrelated point about sexual eccentricity not being limited to contemporary western culture. The truth is I think you nailed some real weaknesses in Percy’s approach. I think it’s the hodge-podge of seriousness, parody, low comedy, high comedy and satire with a very specific axe to grind that makes the book difficult to assess or defend. Anyway, your comments were great, very spirited and sharp, and I appreciate your willingness to go for it. No worries about offending anyone.

  7. Quin Finnegan says

    I think I’ve had thoughts somewhat similar to those expressed by Jess, which is one reason why I want to classify the book as a novel, however much it may seem to bend the form.

    I’m not sure that by about it being more a candidate for parody than satire, or (if I understand you correctly) that parody is somehow a less worthy enterprise than satire. In fact, Ellyn’s profile portrait of Marge Simpson reminds me that the Simpsons is often referred to as satire, and they’ve satirized some pretty low targets. And parodied some high ones. Or satirized some low ones, or … whatever. And though self help books are indeed pretty low on the literary scale, surely the evaporation of faith and the belief in God as an important component of intellectual endeavors of all kinds is not, and I think it’s precisely this that Percy was aiming for. That he tries to manage this while producing such vignettes as that of poor Ralph in front of his Zenith Chromacolor might be a reach, but even if he hasn’t pulled it off there’s something pretty amazing in the attempt. And of course I think he has pulled it off.

    Somewhere Percy called himself a satirical writer, and I remember reading the comment and thinking that it was a bit of a cop-out. Or at least an attempt at self-definition that was more confining than not. On the other hand, it may have been a kind of humility that helped him produce these last two books: The Thanatos Syndrome reads as something of a parody of Robert Ludlum, and it’s hard to say which is a lower target (why wasn’t Jason Bourne included in LITC?). It’s as if Percy wanted to say, “Yeah, I started out wanting to be the next Doesteovsky or Charles S. Pierce, and here I am doing my best just to keep up with Jack Higgins and David Burns.”

    Not a whole lot of pretension there, at least by my estimation.

    I need to work on my defense of LITC as a novel, but even if that’s a bit of a stretch I do think it’s a good deal bit more coherent than Message in a Bottle. For one thing, it seems to have been written within the space of a couple of years, and of course there are the fictional elements I mentioned earlier. The theoretical stuff in the middle isn’t entirely inapproriate to the form, either; Goethe called his own Elective Affinities a novel, and I’d hazard that Percy’s use of semiotics works in LITC much the same as chemical reactions did in the composition of the other, though certainly more obviously. For my money, the title is less jarring and the results are actually better. And a lot more funny.

  8. Quin Finnegan says

    What’s weird for me is that I actually use LITC as a self-help book. I can’t get through five pages of The New Mood Therapy, but I’ll go back to LITC time and again to remind myself why I don’t wear a beret.

    So maybe it isn’t a novel. Maybe it’s just a really good self help book. I’m not sure Percy would have cared.

  9. Rufus McCain says

    I use it as an actual self-help book, too, come to think of it.

  10. Henri Young says

    Back to the state funeral of Bill Clinton; how about a line of congressmen and lobbyists placing assorted sex toys in his coffin?

  11. Henri Young says

    Excellent self-help book, better even than “How to Master the Art of Selling”, or “The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren” for that matter. And Quin, in my opinion you should really rethink that beret.

    Consider the alternatives.

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