This is a spoiler-free review
‘When a true genius appears in the world,
you may know him by this sign, that the dunces
are all in a confederacy against him’
[Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting]
Edition: Penguin Classics
First Published: 1980
Genre: Modern Classic
A fat and unlikeable Don Quixote living in modern times, Ignatius J. Reilly firmly believes that he is fighting a righteous crusade against a society that seems to be falling apart. Everything around him clearly lacks geometry and theology. So far, he has been venting out his vehement invective on Big Chief tablets, while hiding inside the back room of his mother’s house. However, everything changes when he’s forced to step outside his ivory tower and join the streets of New Orleans in the undignified research of a job. He decides to record this social experiment of his under the title Journal of a Working Boy, or Up From Sloth. A unique and irreverent tragicomedy, A Confederacy of Dunces tells the real story behind his writings.
This mysterious novel was the first book I had to read for the Cambridge Waterstones book club ‘I really should have read this’. I say ‘mysterious’ because I had never heard of it and its author before. This was back in October and I only had one week to read it while I was looking for a room to rent and I was starting my internship with Oxfam. I didn’t manage to finish it in time for the book club and I then abandoned it. Finally, I picked it up again for the Genrethon in April and finished what I had started six months ago. Believe me, it’s a big relief not to have the cover of the book staring down at me with accusing expectation.
The novel surprised me from the very first paragraph for its rich vocabulary and writing style. Toole’s pen manages to chisel out of each page the aspect and personality of his characters with extreme creativity and detail. The author has a very distinctive style that brings colour and tone to the scenes he depicts. I was simply blown away. He doesn’t shy away from using different registers in his dialogues either. The way he reproduces accents and slang is incredible. Every time I came across Jones, the black main character who is trying to make a living out of his underpaid job at The Night of Joy bar, I would just hear his voice suddenly come alive. And it wasn’t my own voice that I was hearing in my mind, but that of someone completely external. That’s when you know that a character has been drawn out astonishingly well.
The novel is told in third person perspective, with multiple points of view. Sometime, these would change in the same page with such ease that it was clear who’s eyes we were looking at the scene from. It was never confusing, never disruptive. There is one part in the novel in particular when this happens that made me smile with approval. It’s when Ignatius meets his future employer at the Levy Pants company, Mr. Gonzales. The changing POV also adds to the richness of the setting and of the characters. We live the office of Mr. Gonzales though his ears and eyes first to then learn what Ignatius thinks of it. We pity Ignatius’ mother, Irene, until Mr Levy helps us having a more global view of her. No one in this novel is a hundred per cent a victim.
Although the two books have completely different plots, A Confederacy of Dunces reminded me of Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. Everything in these novels is ugly and shabby. We follow characters that we should repel. Yet, we come to feel attached to them and to pity them. In both, the setting is also extremely important. New Orleans and Brighton respectively also become main characters. They are equally complex and detailed. And it’s the shabbiest side of them that we are brought in close contact with. There is almost a guilty pleasure in seeing things that we normally wouldn’t look at.
Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces we meet a whole series of unlikely characters. There is Mancuso, the police officer who is forced to fancy dress during his shifts as a punishment to him wrongfully arresting an old man; there is Miss Trixie, Levy Pants’ oldest employee whose only wish is to retire, but she can’t because Mrs Levy wants her to still feel loved and useful; Myrna Minkoff, an unthinkable love counterpart to Ignatius, obsessed with sexual liberation; and many others. And of course we have Ignatius:
‘A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue yellow eyes looked down on the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.’
His spiteful attitude and mammoth-like stature seems utterly alien to us at first. We have fun reading about his absurd adventures and inventive condemnations of society, knowing that we are distanced from them, that we disapprove of them. Yet, we can’t quite get rid of this feeling of being impressed by him and his intellectual knowledge. Slowly we start seeing the eerie logic behind his actions. In their own way, they make sense. We also share some of his aspirations. His critique of society, however distorted, bears some pertinent truth and reveals the absurdities of our own world.
Had Ignatius had been living in today’s America, I wonder if he would be diagnosed with mental illness and eating disorders. Like for Holden in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Ignatius’ green hunting cap is a symbol with which he identify himself as a marginalised character. He can’t conform to a society that he feels alienated from. Today, would we see him differently? Do we read him differently? It’s probably a personal interpretation. My view of him softened down as I went along. I think the author does try to make us sympathise with him and his desperation towards the end.
Ending which, by the way, was very good. Like in a Golden Age comedy, the denouement brings each character in its rightful place and restores some sort of order and balance to the situation, however precarious it might be. It was the kind of conclusion which you didn’t expect, but, after reading it, you realise that it was the only way it could have worked.
Unfortunately, I have one major criticism towards the novel. Before the final two chapters that wrap up everything, there was a section, particularly chapters 10 and 12, that made me angry and annoyed. If, from one hand, I absolutely adored the way in which the homosexual cause is treated (I’ll let you read about it yourself), from the other I didn’t like the way Toole handled the gay characters in the story. They just appear like stereotypical shallow-minded and trouble-making party-goers. I could have accepted a few characters being like that, but there is not exception to this generalisation. I wish I could cut this part out and stitch the loose ends back together. It wouldn’t even affect the development of the plot nor the characters’. I guess it’s a novel of its time, but one has to be aware of it nonetheless when reading it. I still felt like Toole was defending the gay community. It’s their characterisation that he got wrong. In that same section there was some messy editing as well, which I don’t know if is related to this edition of A Confederacy of Dunces, or to its peculiar publication story. As I’ve mentioned in my Genrethon TBR, the author committed suicide without succeeding in getting his novel published. It was only thanks to his mother’s efforts after his death that it reached the wider world. That probably made the editing process quite tricky, as the intention would be to preserve and respect the authorial decision. Fortunately, the quality of the novel picks up again and it makes for a very satisfying and good ending.
It’s difficult to say what A Confederacy of Dunces is about. On one level, it’s just the story of this improbable character’s confrontation with society. His adventures become humorous in their extravagance and in the way they are told. Ignatius is an erudite and creative liar who will make you laugh with dissent at the way he turns every situation upside down and inside out.
But this is not just a comedy. It’s also sad. The stark surrounding that these characters are living in, the lack of any real communication and of personal satisfaction, at least for most of the novel, is nothing light-hearted. Of course, the satire and humour continuously keep the spirit up, but there’s this undercurrent bitter feeling that comes with it.
It’s not just about Ignatius and the other extravagant characters either. This rumbling farce of massive dimensions hits deeper than that and opens a chasm that dissects society and forces us to look straight into its eyes. Poverty, drinking, the conditions of black and gay people, consumerism, crime and sexuality, are all things that this novel touches upon. This insignificant tale about an unaccomplished and hypocrite idealist turns into a great social satire of contemporary America.
I really enjoyed reading A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s not a book for everybody. Its pace is quite slow and it’s not a pretty story. But if you like reading about ugly characters, if you are interested in social commentary, if you are open to a rich and complex writing style, if you want to know how Ignatius planned to Save the World Through Degeneracy, then this irreverent tragicomedy is for you. I’m really not surprised that it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’m so glad it was selected for the book club, because I don’t think I would have ever got to it otherwise.