A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the early ‘60s of New Orleans, written by John Kennedy Toole in 1969, but not published until 1980 through the perseverance of his mother (read: the stalking of an influential professor until the man succumbed and read the carbon manuscript) after Toole’s suicide.
The first thing you should know about the novel is that its title was derived from a Jonathan Swift quote:
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
I guess the next thing is to meet Ignatius J. Reilly: protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, and a self-styled genius. Forced by his mother to get a job (his first), he drags his 30 year old, university educated obese ass to gain employment as a filing clerk and, later, as a hot dog vendor. This doesn’t stop him from waging a one-man war against modernity, vices, and pretty much anything going against his principles of “taste and decency” and “proper theology and geometry”.
Actually, have an excerpt from Ignatius’ Journal of a Working Boy:
“… I was emulating the poet Milton by spending my youth in seclusion, meditation, and study in order to perfect my craft of writing as he did; my mother’s cataclysmic intemperance has thrust me into the world in the most cavalier manner; my system is still in a state of flux. Therefore, I am still in the process of adapting myself to the tension of the working world. As soon as my system becomes used to the office, I shall take the giant step of visiting the factory…”
Thirdly, A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque novel. A bizarre word, it refers, apparently, to a satirical novel following a lower-class hero as he steers his way through a corrupt society. The result was that I couldn’t stand more than two characters (for any curious creatures out there, I liked Jones, an African American worker, and Dorian Greene, a flamingly gay man living in the French Quarter and who threw awesome parties), because I felt the need to slap a bit of sense into everyone else. This is a good thing.
You see, in satire, authors sometimes sacrifice realism to get their readers to emit ‘haha’ noises or, perhaps more nobly, to make the moral of the story clear. Toole doesn’t do this. His characters are realistic, and, yes, annoying, but you simply can’t hold it against such exquisite flesh and blood creations!
The downside is that I probably didn’t find this novel as funny as I thought I would; strangely enough, I kept worrying about everything … for example, Ignatius (and what an excellent name!) decides that filing is a fire hazard and, more to the point, unnecessary, so just empties out the filing cabinet and throws out any new papers that come his way. While his unknowing boss is floored by the latest hire’s filing speed, my brain is meanwhile churning up scenarios where something drastic happens, due to, you guessed it, the missing files. Or I’d be fretting about Ignatius’ mother paying off her debt.
But now that I’ve seen how everything turns out – very satisfactory, fate weaved a complex little tale of coincidences – I think I could go back and read the novel again just for laughs.
Ignatius is one of the most fantastic characters I’ve ever met: eloquent yet gassy, boisterous yet almost vulnerably private. A more unlikeable character I couldn’t imagine (unless he or she kicked puppies) but in spite of Ignatius’ numerous defects, the reader feels a grudging sympathy for the lazy slob.
And who hasn’t wanted, at least once, to be like Ignatius? To sit in a cinema and unreservedly yell at the screen’s latest flick catering to the dunces of our time (I’m looking at you, Avatar), or to write scathing replies to bothersome letters of complaint, or even to inspire a riot in the workplace?
Then again, forget what I said about Bridget Jones, it’s an unemployed and overweight man, who alternates between his bed, the cinema, and his television, that I don’t want to end up as when I’m 30.
Before I leave you to your devices, I’m going to include another extract from Ignatius’ journal. Because I’m awesome like that. Here is our ill-tempered hero talking about his latest assignment from his boss, Clyde: to wheel the hot dog cart around the dreaded French Quarter.
“The grandeur of my physique, the complexity of my worldview, the decency ad taste implicit in my carriage, the grace with which I function in the mire of today’s world – all of these at once confuse and astound Clyde. Now he has relegated me to working in the French Quarter, an area which houses every vice that man has ever conceived in his wildest aberrations, including, I would imagine, several modern variants made possible through the wonders of science.”
Check out this cool blog, Ignatius’ Ghost, which takes you on a tour of New Orleans’ locations as mentioned in A Confederacy of Dunces!