Thursday, June 21, 2018

His Being Has Many Facets: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole

The backstory of this novel is very interesting. Published in 1980, its author, John Kennedy Toole, was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for it the following year. The genre is described as "Picaresque" (from the Spanish word "picaro," meaning rogue), which often focuses on the struggles of an eccentric character who attempts to make his way in a hostile world. The cinematic genre of French New Wave would later take this concept and run with it, showcasing plotting or dishonest male characters who must continue to find ways to beat an upper-class or legal system that aspires to keep them down. John Kennedy Toole is said to have based parts of this novel on his own experiences in academia and food-vending as well as those of a professor colleague; he died by suicide in 1969. His mother took the unpublished manuscript to an author acquaintance and with his help, the novel was published.

The rogue in this story, not Spanish but quite American, is Ignatius Reilly. He resides in New Orleans with his mother, is educated, and spends his time writing extensive monologues in Big Chief tablets, itemizing his health calamities (which mostly focus around his pyloric valve), and lamenting the direction his life has taken at hands of the goddess FORTUNA and her spinning wheel. I could go on about the plot, where places and language are highly influential, the characters, which are equal parts realistic and caricatured, or some of the situations of racist, sexist, and homophobic language (of which there are several), but it really is a great example of a work that's way more than the sum of its parts. To be clear; the story isn't mean or hateful but does convey opinions and ways of talking that were probably honest for the time during which it was written, and these are jarring and offensive, period. More than all of this, though, the overall reading experience here is outlandish, but in the best possible wayIn other words, this is a ridiculously bizarre story about a ridiculously bizarre collection of people written by an extremely intelligent person. John Kennedy Toole had obviously seen some things in his life in order to put this all down on paper. The words are assembled and delivered in such ways that you almost find yourself wondering how someone could think this way to even come up with them. Just thinking now about an actual person saying some of these lines in life makes me want to both laugh out loud and cringe. Hard.

Art by Sloppygee
For example, some witty narration:

1. "When Fortuna spins you downward, you go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every single night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning."

Easy enough. Or this, as a former professor discovers some previously disregarded correspondence:

2. "As he turned over one essay, his eye fell upon a rough, yellowed sheet of Big Chief tablet paper on which was printed with a red crayon:

Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr's honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers. 
     Pray to him, you deluded fool, you 'anyone for tennis?' golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron. Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr--for you further no holy cause--but as the total ass which you really are.

A sword was drawn on the last line of the page."

Yes, things begin to heat up, becoming toward the end quite serious:

3. "'Are you referring to a psychiatric ward by any chance?' Ignatius demanded in a rage. 'Do you think I am insane? Do you suppose that some stupid psychiatrist could even attempt to fathom the workings of my psyche?'
'You could get some rest, honey. You could write some stuff in your little copybooks.'
'They would try to make me into a moron who likes 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!'"

"You may send a map of my new route to the
mental ward at Charity Hospital. The solicitous
nuns and psychiatrists there can help me
decipher it between shock treatments."
The thing about this novel is you will know from the very first page (or actually the stuff above will also serve as indicators) whether or not you're going to enjoy it. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, though they were certainly well-written and always over the top, but I very much enjoyed reading this book. More than once I found myself wondering what in the world would happen next, or how this particular dilemma would resolve, happy to dive into whatever that day's chapter was.

The events were funny and entertaining, but really this all came together with the dialogues (which were not for one second realistic, but whatever). A lot of screaming, a lot of belching (these were actually the most common dialogue tags throughout the story), and a lot of sarcasm. You must enjoy sarcasm if you're having a go at this book. At its core, this is really the tale of a very abrasive yet misunderstood guy who gets himself into bad luck situations but the whole thing still manages to unfold like a weird, smart-talking dumpster fire, each chapter crazier than the last. I do encourage Americans to read this, with caution and I don't know, maybe equal parts patience and humor. Try to have fun with it. It's interesting, it's clever, but I can't deny that my suspicion is that the common reaction will be similar to the one-word response a good friend of mine once used to describe one of my ex-boyfriends, which was "GRODY."

Give it a try; I'd love to hear your takes on this one!