And why shouldn’t Walker Percy write a Roman Catholic
science-fiction comic existential romance novel?

Rarely do I read a book, and proclaim: "Well, no one ever
did that before.”  Usually when I do,
the next thought that comes into my
head is: “Let’s hope no one does it
again.” Or, as my wife likes to tell our
sons: "Just because you can, doesn't
mean that you should.”

Love in the Ruins (1971), Percy can
and does and should. Ingredients never
previously mixed, rub shoulders under the
soft covers of my paperback copy. Yet he
pulls off this momentous mash-up with
moxie. He leaves me wanting more of the
same. Clearly he felt the same way: His
final book,
The Thanatos Syndrome
(1987) was a sequel to Love in the Ruins,
and proved that epistemology and zombies
are not incompatible.

, best known for his 1961 National
Book Award-winning novel
The Moviegoer,
specialized in angst-ridden protagonists,
paralyzed by self-doubt and on the brink of
mental illness. His unheroic hero in
Love in the Ruins, is another
of these soul-haunted men, a psychiatrist appropriately named
Thomas More. Our good doctor was named after his ancestor,
the same More who wrote
Utopia and was beheaded by King
Henry VIII. Our modern-day More has much in common with his
famous predecessor: he is a troubled Catholic, losing his head
(albeit metaphorically rather than literally) in the face of social and
political conflict, and seeking for earthly salvation via a radical
personal vision of utopian life.

Dr. More is a dreamer. But he also much more than a dreamer….
because he has invented the More Qualitative-Quantitative
Ontological Lapsometer. This is a handy piece of equipment that
diagnoses existential angst, and supplies a proper jolt to treat it.
Think of it as a kind of defibrillator for the soul. And just imagine
the therapeutic value of rebalancing the inner self with outer self?
More is convinced that a Nobel Prize is in his future.

In the meantime, he needs to worry about the mysterious stranger
who is trying to shoot him. And the colleague who wants to humiliate
him. And several ladies who also have plans for his future, apparently
subscribing to the old adage that ‘More is better’.  

He should be dealing with these problems, and assorted other crises
in his neighborhood, but instead he frets about the consequences of
his discovery. More offers up his own homemade prayer in hopes
of averting them: "Lord, grant that my work increase knowledge and
help other men. Failing that, Lord, grant that it will not lead to man's
destruction. Failing that, Lord, grant that my article in
Brain be
published before the destruction takes place." This, Percy explains,
is "the prayer of the scientist if he prayed, which is not likely."

Dr. More is having trouble explaining his breakthrough to others.  
Even his neighbors in Paradise, Louisiana think he is a bit crazy,
and although they still turn to him for medical advice and treatment,
more than few of them believe the physician ought to heal himself.
More makes matters worse by describing his scientific breakthrough
in spiritual terms. As he sees it, his Lapsometer diagnoses two great
evils in modern society—namely
angelism and bestialism,  marked
by too great spiritual abstraction, on the one hand, and abandonment
to animal-like impulses on the other.  Even skeptics gradually come
to accept that More can change people's psyches with his strange
device, but his rambling talk about the human soul gives them the

This strange sci-fi plot would, in itself, be sufficient to propel a
fascinating novel. But Percy wants to do so much more. He
gives his troubled doctor three major love interests, and our
befuddled protagonist tries to pursue all of them, even as he
deals with the emotional fallout from his failed first marriage.  
On top of this, Percy constructs a wild political satire, involving
terrorist cells and plans for revolution in Paradise. A whole
host of movements, counter-movements and splinter cells interact
during the course of these pages, and perspicacious readers may
want to jot down marginalia so that they can keep track of the
competing agendas of the Knotheads, Bantus, Leftpapas,
Christian proctologists, Teutonic sexologists, love people, the
American Catholic Church of Cicero, Illinois, Qualitarians, and
other factions whose disputes and dogmas repeatedly move the
story in unexpected directions.

Indeed, Percy may be best known as a religious writer, given the
themes of his books, but nothing is sacred in his stories. All the
most controversial issues—race, religion, sex, party politics,
Yankee imperialism, class warfare, guns and ammo—play a
prominent role in
Love in the Ruins. No matter what your belief
system and background, you will find something offensive
somewhere in these pages.

A typical conversation from its pages

  "Chief, the news is worse…."

  "What has happened now?"

  "There are riots in New Orleans, and riots over here. The
   students are fighting the National Guard, the Lefts are fighting
   the Knotheads, the blacks are fighting the whites. The Jews are
   being persecuted."

  "What are the Christians doing?"


  "Turn on the TV."

  "It’s on. The station went off the air."

But you have to admire Walker Percy's daring. Plenty of writers
were concocting apocalyptic sci-fi novels during this period, and
more than a few extracted political insights from these action-
oriented stories. But Percy's attempt to construct a science fiction
of the soul is even more ambitious.
Love in the Ruins is one of the
few futuristic tales suitable for scrutiny and assessment by
theologians and moral philosophers. In the annals of science fiction,
only a handful of novels (such as James Blish's
A Case of
Conscience, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or—
now don't freak out!—Frank Herbert's
Dune) have dug so deeply into
the inner workings of our ethical constructs.

Percy has many interesting things to say in the course of this book,
and almost every page contains something quotable or notable. But
readers who prefer tight narratives and neat, clean plots will rebel
against the rambling and ruminative delivery. The end result is less
like a novel, and more like a lovable but opinionated great uncle at
the dinner table spinning an endless yarn, filled with sidetracks,
digressions and rude observations. Even if you disagree, you will
be entertained, and find yourself recalling snatches of the monologue
days or weeks later.  

Percy was that kind of writer and—God bless him!—one of the best
of them. If I tried to sum up his work in a pithy phrase, I would turn
to an old song very popular in the same Louisiana in which
Love in
the Ruins
is set. Its title, "Oh, Didn’t He Ramble" fits Percy perfectly.
I’m told the original version of this song was so outrageous as to
be unpublishable, but once cleaned up it became suitable for both
parties and funerals. Percy's book captures a bit of all these traits
—it's outrageous, jubilant and elegiac all at the same time. Maybe
that's a contradiction, but then again, maybe tha's just the right recipe
for existential Roman Catholic sci-fi comic romance fiction.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  His next book, a
history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: September 18, 2014
Love in the Ruins
by Walker Percy

Essay by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss

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