8/10. Exceptional. I don’t know who or what first recommended this novel to me, but it’s been on my “to read list” for a few years now.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review, so long that I needed to review a few old posts for guidance. I’ve been plagued by work and minor health issues for the past few weeks so I figured I could replace independent thought by criticizing someone else’s creativity. It also seemed that I was writing more about movies than books these days. The blog is still called “Chris Reads” last I checked. Maybe I’ll be returning to the book review, a tried and true format, whenever my inventive juices are running low.
A Confederacy of Dunces is the best book that I’ve read this year, and perhaps in a year. This is largely because it succeeds at being perhaps the funniest book ever, while painting a caricature of all classes in American society. The novel becomes more intriguing when the life of the author is considered, and it becomes clear that the novel is autobiographical, at least in themes, which is something I have always found fascinating. Importantly, the book prompted some introspection on my end; perhaps it wasn’t deliberate on the author’s end, but it was well taken all the same.
The novel lacks a traditional plot structure, relying mostly on humour and a very memorable cast of characters to carry the reader’s attention. The action centers around Ignatius J. Reilly, a thirty-year-old man-child living with his overbearing mother in New Orleans, in a house described to be the “tiniest structure on the block”, “that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly — and with very limited funds.” He has a master’s degree, but contributes nothing to his or his mother’s livelihood, instead spending his time in his room, writing a presumed opus in red crayon, on notebooks designed for young children. Ignatius lives his life from his room, so the events of the novel are set into action only when an automotive accident forces him to look for a job to help pay for damages, and he starts encountering characters in the outside world.
Instead of covering any more of what happens, I’ll share some quotes which I feel illustrate the narrative style, all from the fourth chapter:
“Ignatius had always had a poor sense of balance, and ever since his obese childhood, he had suffered a tendency to fall, trip, and stumble. Until he was five years old and had finally managed to walk in an almost normal manner, he had been a mass of bruises and hickeys. Ignatius squatted lower and lower until his great buttocks touched the stool, his knees reaching almost to his shoulders. When he was at last nestled upon his perch, he looked like an eggplant balanced atop a thumb tack.”
“Mrs. Reilly could not believe that it had really happened to her. There was no television. There were no complaints. The bathroom was empty. Even the roaches seemed to have pulled up stakes. She sat at the kitchen table sipping a little muscatel and blew away the one baby roach that was starting to cross the table. The tiny body flew off the table and disappeared, and Mrs. Reilly said, “So long, darling.””
“The Levy home stood among the pines on a small rise overlooking the gray waters of Bay St. Louis. The exterior was an example of elegant rusticity; the interior was a successful attempt at keeping the rustic out entirely, a permanently seventy-five-degree womb connected to the year-round air-conditioning unit by an umbilicus of vents and pipes that silently filled the rooms with filtered and reconstituted Gulf of Mexico breezes and exhaled the Levys’ carbon dioxide and cigarette smoke and ennui.”
“ I have taken to arriving at the office one hour later than I am expected. Therefore, I am far more rested and refreshed when I do arrive, and I avoid that bleak first hour of the working day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance. I find that in arriving later, the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.”
In my experience, books are rarely known for being funny. Sometimes, a good one liner can generate enough humour to merit a faster than usual exhale through the nose, but nothing consistent like A Confederacy of Dunces. This led me to wonder what sort of person John Kennedy Toole was. My first clue was the foreword written by a professor named Walker Percy who states that a strange lady’s dead son “had written an entire novel [A Confederacy of Dunces] during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.”
I thought this was heartwarming at the time, but as I read, I noticed the likeliness between Toole’s mother and Mrs. Reilly. I delved further into Toole’s Wikipedia page, which was doubtless written with A Confederacy of Dunces in mind, but was still amazed at the biographical similarity between Toole and Ignatius. He was born and raised in New Orleans, had a girlfriend similar to that of Ignatius, and worked at a family owned clothing factory as well as a tamales vendor. All literature is autobiographical to some extent, but that any author would chose to see and depict themselves as a whining, slobbering, perpetual juvenile is intriguing.
Ignatius seems almost like a parody of Toole himself, all his worst traits stretched to their utmost, as he lives with his parents in the hope of completing his novel like Ignatius. A Confederacy of Dunces then can be read as a künstlerroman of sorts, a novel about an artist’s growth. Of course, Ignatius doesn’t mature in the novel; the chief complaint of editors who were shown the novel was that it lacked an overarching theme or raison d’être, which made it unfit for publishing. Fortunately, Ms. Toole’s efforts were not in vain, and the novel ended up on my reading list.
Despite the alleged absence of meaning, I found A Confederacy of Dunces to be a parable. It was a funhouse mirror, showing me a distorted image of what I could possibly be. Outwardly, I share little resemblance with Ignatius; obvious physical differences aside, I try my best to be considerate, and I’ve stopped living with my parents (phew).
Fundamental to Ignatius’ character however, is a self-imposed sort of alienation. At first glance, it might seem like Ignatius can’t connect with anyone around him because he’s had much more education and no longer shares the same interests or beliefs. A few chapters later, it becomes obvious he’s just a surly misanthrope who only speaks with others to condescend. Throughout the novel, Ignatius doesn’t make an effort to communicate properly even once. He wields his vocabulary like a whip, lashing at others with barbed insults and threats.
Ignatius is happy on this island unto himself, content with the knowledge that he is an unrecognized genius, and requires no validation from those who surround him. This contrasts heavily with Toole, who so desperately wanted to become published, and whose suicide we can at least attribute in part to his failure to obtain recognition. I sit at these crossroads.
I don’t claim a shred of Toole’s talent or Ignatius’ education, but I feel a similar uselessness in that I do lay claim to. What good is all my trivia, my accumulated cultural capital? What ends can all that I’ve read and watched serve, other than impressing others? Capitalism hasn’t indoctrinated me to believe that everything needs to generate money to be useful, but the more I relish having this knowledge for its own sake, the closer I feel to Ignatius. With every highbrow joke I make, or every pompous reference I privately enjoy, I imagine Ignatius snorting at his own intelligence while living in squalor. Yet what else to make of my erudition?
I’m fortunately to have friends and family who simultaneously humour my pretensions while doing their best to keep me level headed, leaving me not alienated like Ignatius and Toole. Despite this, I still feel like Ignatius, scribbling not on Big Chief tablets, but on my Medium blog. And just as it’s obvious that Ignatius is wasting his time with his treatise that no one will ever read, I find myself wondering if I’m doing the same.
Ultimately, A Confederacy of Dunces provides no explicit recommendations and I am also unable to come up with any substantial conclusions. My feeling is that I should take these posts a little more seriously, try to get started earlier in the week and leaving myself some time to edit instead of crunching them out Friday morning. Without any formal instruction, it’s doubly important that I remain mindful and write with intention, the intention to improve. Who knows how long the resolution will last, but it’s a start. And please leave criticism if you have it. My ego can handle it, at least at this moment.