October 04, 2004
Book Review - A Confederacy of Dunces
I am typing on the Gray's computer, which has one of those old-fashioned keyboards, unlike my Natural keyboard. I remind myself of an adult trying to ride a small tricycle, all scrunched in and totally awkward. But this has been the Day of Horrors, the worst of which is that my own computer refuses to boot. I think it got angry that I had installed Mozilla's Firefox browser. When I then tried to install a Microsoft product, the two products donned their respective war bonnets and fought to the death-- nuclear devastation inside a microchip. Now we know that the weapons of mass destruction have been inside my computer the whole time.
Of course, Ignatius Reilly could have predicted this long ago. He was a very insightful young man. I am speaking of the main character of the hilarious Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Confederacy of Dunces, written by John Kennedy Toole and published posthumously at the insistence of his mother-- ironic, since the book is about a "boy" (30-year-old) who still lives with his mother despite holding advanced degrees. It seems that Mr. Toole killed himself because he couldn't get the book published.
Despite the tragic end of the author, the book is a delight. I'd like to present you with some excerpts which especially had me laughing out loud.
Ignatius, an obese and flatulent young man whose many years of education was hard-earned by his mother's sacrifices, thinks of himself as a Great Person who should have to do nothing but write an assortment of papers about his World View in the pages of various pink Big Chief tablets scattered around the floor of his odiferous bedroom. Suddenly, due to certain circumstances, he is forced to find a job, and finds it difficult to get hired.
At one point, Ignatius has found a job (reluctantly) as a hot dog vendor, and on his first day has eaten all but four of the hot dogs himself. He is trying to convince his boss that they were stolen by an adolescent, who held a pistol against his head. The boss expresses doubt. Says Ignatius:
"Perhaps he was very hungry. Perhaps some vitamin deficiency in his growing body was screaming for appeasement. The human desire for food and sex is relatively equal. If there are armed rapes, why should there not be armed hot dog thefts? I see nothing unusual in the matter."
"You are full of bullshit" [says the boss]
"I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society. The youth, crazed by suggestive television programs and lascivious periodicals, had apparently been consorting with some rather conventional adolescent females who refused to participate in his imaginative sexual program. His unfulfilled physical desires therefore sought sublimation in food. I, unfortunately, was the victim of all this. We may thank God that this boy has turned to food for an outlet. Had he not, I might have been raped right there on the spot."
Ignatius believes that the world's progress stopped with the medieval period and that "music stopped with Scarlatti". Himself a proponent of Boethius and Fortuna's wheel, he advises a resident of the French Quarter on what to read:
"Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.... I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman."
Using Ignatius as his mouthpiece, Toole pokes fun at almost everything, and I expect it is the rare reader who can't recognize themselves in the book. He even addresses the fiber issue of which I spoke a couple of days ago.
"They [psychiatrists] would try to make me into a moron who liked television and new cars and frozen food. Don't you understand? Psychiatry is worse than communism. I refuse to be brainwashed. I won't be a robot!... The only problem that those people [psychiatric patients] have anyway is that they don't like new cars and hair sprays. That's why they are put away. They make the other members of the society fearful. Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions."
"Ignatius, that ain't true. You remember old Mr. Becnel used to live down the block? They locked him up because he was running down the street naked."
"Of course he was running down the street naked. His skin could not bear any more of that Dacron and nylon clothing that was clogging his pores. I've always considered Mr. Becnel one of the martyrs of our age. The poor man was badly victimized."
To his mother, Ignatius once says:
"It's not your fate to be well treated...You're an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you."
For such a young author, Toole had a good grasp of society as a whole and was able to satirize it magnificently. He poked fun at overeducated people who did nothing with their education; he highlighted some of the obstacles that blacks and gays faced in the early 60's; he makes fun of those who think up grandiose plans and end up falling on their faces, only to pick themselves up and keep trying, of blaming society for personal faults and of ignoring the lessons of all of history in favor of a certain period.
If you have read this book, I would love to hear what you got out of it!
I'm going downstairs now into my Parlor of Chaos to knit Great Works and ignore all my responsibilities.
Posted by Sheila at October 4, 2004 01:32 PM
Posted to Book Reviews
| Computers and Programming
Brilliant! I love that book and wish that I had time now for a quick rereading because you've got me jonesing for Ignatius again!
Toole is quite good at poking into all of our little foibles, and Ignatius is the ideal vehicle--an absolute outcast, enfant ineffectual, he is really quite a brilliant character.
Ooooo....stop me from pulling the book from the shelf! Must...write...code...
I, too, adore this book, and reread it every few years. Ignatius is the most magnificent anti-hero ever, and whenever he would launch into the tale of the bus ride to University, I would always keel over in joy. Or the 12 Inches of Paradise he encounters upon exiting the Doris Day movie. Or the Levy Pants worker revolt—poor Miss Trixie! To this day, when things don't seem to be going my way, I say to myself (as Ignatius was prone to say): Fortuna! You vicious slut!
I'll have a coffee with boiled milk, and a jelly donut now, unless you have some of them nice cakes...? Thanks for reminding me of Everyperson's ability to be larger than life, even while assiduously avoiding life! Knitting blogs might be kinda like that, I'm beginning to think.
By the way, you can read Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy online!
Hm, I read it maybe 6 or 8 years ago, and since then I've thrown so much else into my head on top of it, and also had so many brain cells addled by parenthood, that I can't remember much about it. But for whatever reason I took against Ignatius, I couldn't stand his egotism and self-centeredness and how he seemed to thrive on always delivering the witty putdown. So, I can present a dissenting, if rather poorly supported, opinion.... Although, I have to say, I have since met people to whom I should have said what Ignatius said to his mother.
sorry, I haven't read the book... just want to say I'm glad to have found your blog again!
Caroline, i think that was the point-- to create a character that was so not what you'd ever want to meet or be yourself, so that you would look closely at what it was about Ignatius that you hate so much and perhaps see it in yourself and those around you. For example, I identified with Ignatius's awful brilliant ideas. I can name a couple of folks that will never accept the kindness of others without mistrusting it. We have to laugh at ourselves or we will not survive!
Usually once I start a book, I finish it (I'm the same way with knitting projects, fortunately!) - on the rare occasions when I've thrown a book aside without finishing it, it's usually because I just cannot like or take an interest in the characters. If I can say to myself, "I don't like these people, I don't care a single bit what happens to these people, and I don't want to spend anymore time with these people," then I quit reading it. (If I can say that about a WIP, then I frog it and get rid of it!) An example of a book that I felt that way about was "Bonfire of the Vanities." ICK! I felt that way about "Confederacy" a little but I persisted, maybe because it is universally agreed to be a brilliant book.... or because of the author's wit.... I can't recall! So I suppose my criteria for liking a book is that in some way or other I care what happens in it.
I am going to have to check that book out! Thank you for the wonderful book review. And I hope that you thoroughly enjoy your Parlor of Chaos!
Hi Annette, glad you're here! And Marti, if you sent me anything I didn't get it due to my untimely crash.
Oh, one more thing about the book (Caroline's comment reminded me). I kept expecting the outcome of the book to be the change in the main character-- I've often read that the author's purpose in writing a novel should be the change of the main character. Instead, everyone in the book changes *except* for Ignatius, which I think is delightful-- that Toole could break the prime rule of novel writing yet win the most coveted prize for novel writing!
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
The comedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is writ large in and between its many lines: a grand farce of overeducated white trash, corrupt law enforcement, exotic dancing and the nouveau riche in steamy New Orleans. The Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Toole's comic prowess to give his only novel the Prize posthumously. Therein lies the tragedy of this huge and hugely funny book: John Kennedy Toole didn't live to see this now-classic novel published. He committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. It was his mother who was responsible for bringing his book to public light, pestering the hell out of Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola in 1976, to read it until finally that distinguished author relented. In his foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, Percy laments the body of work lost to the world of literature with the author's death, but rejoices "that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers."
At the center of A Confederacy of Dunces is that contemptuous hypochondriac, that deadbeat ideologue, that gluttonous moocher Ignatius Reilly. A mountainous college graduate living off his mother's welfare check in her home on one of New Orleans seedy back streets. He spends most of his time waxing melodramatically philosophic, hiding out in the squalor of his bedroom, filling Big Chief writing tablets with his unique brand of Luddite/medievalist/anti-Enlightenment thought and penning incendiary letters to his sex-crazed ex-college-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. His beleaguered mother by turns dotes and turns on him in their schizophrenic dance between adult child and aging parent.
Waiting on Canal Street for his mother to come back from an arthritis consultation with her doctor, Ignatius gets hauled off by a cop (who thinks the mustachioed mountain in tweed trousers, plaid flannel shirt and trademark green hunting cap looks suspicious). Thus begins a tailspin into one misadventure followed by another and another ad infinitum. Ignatius and his mother, traumatized by the event, step into a sleazy strip joint and drink themselves silly. As they leave, Mrs. Reilly promptly plows her Plymouth into a building.
The dollars in damages they need to pay for their little accident cannot be met by Mrs. Reilly's meager welfare check. So it is that Ignatius grudgingly begins a series of jobs that suck him ever-deeper into the seamy underbelly of 1960s New Orleans. Ignatius' impact leaves the poor souls in his wake insensible and gaping. His work at Levy Pants (file clerk) and for Paradise Vendors (hotdog-pushcart man) bring Ignatius to lead a workers' revolt and become an unwitting soft-core-porn distribution stooge. His arrogance (and flatulence) touch the people he encounters in horrible ways, yet his indignant, malicious blunders make it possible for those he's injured (intentionally or not) to come out better at the far end of the story.
Ignatius Reilly has got to be one of the most off-putting main characters in modern literature, but this hygenically-challenged intellectual oaf has something in common with a soap-opera vixen: you love to hate him. And he's got something in common with a train wreck: he makes you rubberneck and then you find you just can't look away. Ignatius' long-suffering but increasingly independent mother is the novel's unsung heroine. She's by turns insufferably dumb and surprisingly sly. Patrolman Mancuso's decline, fall, and eventual rise all derive from his brush with Ignatius, and his degradations at the behest of his police superiors has readers laughing behind their hands. You feel sorry for the guy, but (snigger) it's so damn funny! The black vagrant Jones is the only character in the whole bunch of idiots who can really see clearly, nevermind that he's forever looking out at the world through dark glasses and a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. A Confederacy of Dunces is simply and insistently a great, perfect comedy of errors and airs, a farce of Olympic proportions.
Student doing a paper on this book. What's the theme. I can't seem to put my finger on it.