95. The taste and decency of A Confederacy of Dunces

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…”

Statue of Ignatius erected in New Orleans. The book is one of the most accurate depictions of the city & its dialects. The statue is placed in the exact spot where the novel opens and we first meet Ignatius.

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.

Stupid brain.

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.

John Kennedy Toole

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.”

Where Ignatius' mum hit the poles with her car, thereby getting into debt & starting the whole chain of events.

Check out this cool blog, Ignatius’ Ghost, which takes you on a tour of New Orleans’ locations as mentioned in A Confederacy of Dunces!

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15 responses to “95. The taste and decency of A Confederacy of Dunces

  1. Pingback: 100 Books To Read … Or die trying | The Friande

  2. I loved Confederacy of Dunces. What a character!

  3. You really can’t help loving Ignatius for the sheer cheek of his existence!

  4. Only the other day I read a post by someone saying that they didn’t enjoy this book – they didn’t find it funny. It seems that you didn’t either but at least you enjoyed it.
    I would really like to read this one, especially after reading this review of it. It seems very clever and unique – both things that I like in a book

    • You’re right – I didn’t find it funny. But the good thing is that the book is more than a comedy, so I could still enjoy it. Something about it just kept me turning those pages… Definitely give it a go: Ignatius might be the most interesting character you’ve met!

  5. OK, that’s it. You’ve inspired me. I’ve had this book on my self for probably 5 years but haven’t opened it. (I got it at a yard sale.) I’m going to start it this weekend.

  6. I remember reading this for the first time and thinking that it was just about the funniest thing I’d ever laid eyes on. I tried to reread it again about a year ago and it just didn’t live up to the pedestal I had placed it on. Still, no doubt that it’s an amazing piece of satire.

    • It’s definitely a great piece of satire, and it’s interesting that you didn’t find it funny when you re-read it. Maybe I will be the opposite? Thought I won’t find out for a while, since I have to wait a while until I can re-read anything…

  7. Pingback: Spotlight on the Wordpress.Com Book Bloggers! « Randomize ME

  8. I’m in need of funny satirical stuff. When I’ll get round to reading this though, god only knows!

    • My mum actually picked up the book since it was lying around my house, & next thing I know, I she’s stolen it & is cracking up every so often. She said she was in need of funny satirical stuff too. Maybe you’ll get some time soon…

  9. It took me a long time to finally get around to reading “A Confederacy of Dunces” … it is certainly not for every taste. All of it’s characters are personally unappealing, and yet the overall story they inhabit overcomes their individual shortcomings.
    There is such a fine line between genius and insanity. I too worried as I read the book. I found myself pulling for Ignatius, all the while knowing in my heart that I would never want to spend any time with him. I was concerned when I came to the books conclusion that a whole new set of “dunces” would now be in league against Ignatius and that of her own choice, but unaware of the consequences, a new woman was about to replace his long suffering mother .

    — Judson

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