Walker Percy’s Lancelot might be the most depressing read in the entire Literature of Lost series.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a good read. It was. The dark humor and insane ramblings of the narrator ranged from the outright funny to surreal, but it was entertaining throughout.
In Lost, Lancelot appears as one of the many books Sawyer reads. It first appears in the season two episode Maternity Leave. Sawyer is reading the book when Kate approaches him to ask for a gun. The book later appears in Sawyer’s flash-sideways episode Recon as one of only three books on Sawyer’s bookshelf, presumably indicating their importance to him.
Lancelot Lamar is confined to a mental institution. The novel transcribes his ramblings to another person, who never actually speaks in the novel. Lancelot tells how he came to be in the mental institution and intersperses that story with his own views on the moral decay in America.
Lancelot is a liberal lawyer in the South who nonetheless has not lived up to his aristocratic name. He hit his heyday in college, when he became a hero for running back a punt return for 110 years against Alabama. After college, he started a fledgling solo law practice. He was never particularly successful and the best thing about him seemed to be his name and the historic mansion he inherited, Belle Isle in New Orleans.
Lancelot later meets a young lady named Margot at a party. They instantly connect physically. Not only that, Margot has money and Lancelot has a famous name in the South. The situation works for the both of them: Lancelot wants money to supplement his failing law practice and Margot wants a famous name to jump start her acting career.
The marriage quickly turns loveless. Or at least what I (and probably you) would term loveless. Lancelot isn’t exactly sure what love is. The physical chemistry never slows down. Sex is still very pleasurable for the both of them. But they certainly aren’t intimate with each other. Lancelot spends the days by himself in an office and the nights with a drink in hand. Margot runs around with a Hollywood crowd that couldn’t be more opposite than Lancelot. They just don’t have a whole lot in common.
While sitting at his desk one day, something catches his eye at precisely 5:01 pm: a card with the blood type of his eight-year old daughter. Lancelot does some quick ninth grade biology calculations, calls his doctor cousin to confirm his work, and concludes that his daughter can’t be his. After a little more investigation, he realizes that Margot was out of town filming a movie for the entire month in which she was likely impregnated.
Lancelot descends into a bitter, crazy man. He thinks he loves Margot, but isn’t really sure what love is. He knows he is jealous that Margot is not only not monogamous, but is openly dismissive of the idea when confronted with it.
When a hurricane traps Margot and the entire movie crew at Belle Isle, Lancelot exacts his vengeance. He opens up a methane leak before blowing the house to bits, killing everyone inside besides himself.
Lancelot tells all this to an unnamed second person narrator. He often interrupts his own story to the narrator fairly often with his own incoherent ramblings on life. He mumbles about the moral decay of America and the proliferation of prostitutes/hippies. He discusses his own struggles to find God.
In a sort of backwards logic that serves as a counterpoint to the Lancelot of King Arthur’s Round Table, Lancelot’s holy grail is sin. He wants to find something truly evil. If he is able to find something truly evil, then he will be convinced that true good exists. But from his rants, the reader knows that he will never be convinced…the guy dismisses Hitler of all people as not being motivated by evil. If Lancelot cannot accept Hitler as truly evil, we know that he will never find his own Holy Grail.
Towards the end, we learn that Lancelot will soon be leaving his mental institution. We don’t actually know if that is true, but we pray that it isn’t. Unstable is an understatement when describing this guy. Not a guy we want on the outside.
As I move along in this Literature of Lost series, I worry that I start repeating myself. Just writing that recap, I cringed when I wrote about the evil Holy Grail situation. In my head, I thought of it like a quote in the same book I just read:
“Oh great,” I sighed to myself, “now I have to write about the good/evil thing in Lost again.”
Nah. I’ll skip it. I think that other works are much more on target than Lancelot.
For me, this book begins and ends with Sawyer. When I read Lancelot, all I thought about was Sawyer’s dad. The same guy who Anthony Cooper conned out of his money and wife that led to the murder-suicide that eight-year old Sawyer witnessed from under a bed.
Sawyer isn’t crazy like Lancelot…but that’s the point. Lancelot is Sawyer’s dad. Sawyer is what comes out a generation later. He isn’t emotionally distant for any reason that he can put his finger on. Like Lancelot, he just doesn’t understand the point of feelings.
Every thing Sawyer does can be traced back to the murder-suicide and the letter that Sawyer carried around for years. He is an irreparably broken Southern man for reasons beyond his control. This is exactly why the book makes a second appearance in season six – even in the flash-sideways, Sawyer has trouble letting go of that part of his identity.
One additional point: at no point during Lancelot did I think that Lancelot was talking to an actual person. He spoke to the reader in second person, but the personality that he attributed to me obviously didn’t match my own personality. To me, that means that he was talking to nobody in particular. A figment of his imagination perhaps.
Of course this very situation popped up a couple episodes later. In Dave, Hurley was confined to a mental institution where he made up a buddy named Dave. Dave enabled Hurley by actively encouraging him to disobey his doctor. Similarly, by virtue of being a sounding board for Lancelot, the narrator enables Lancelot’s own ideas to gain steam. And as the ideas gain steam, Lancelot gets crazier and crazier.