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A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
May 14, 11
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May 14, 2011 06:31AM
I really enjoyed this book, and I only gave it four stars because the ending was such a disappointment. On the other hand, I understand that the book was never really well-edited during the author's lifetime, despite efforts on behalf of others to do so, so perhaps I should extend the benefit of the doubt. In any case...some thoughts. And I'm reconsidering changing to a five-star status as I review the book.
The characters live with me well beyond my finishing of the book. Ignatius J. Reilly has become such a major literary 'hero' that there is a sculpture of him in New Orleans. But even the minor characters are incredibly original...Miss Trixie...Mrs. Levy...the Levy daughters, whom we never meet. Part of this is due to the descriptions, and part, I think, due to the author's remarkable ability to capture their voices in dialog with either themselves (that's really a monologue) or with others. We hear from Ignatius most often and most expansively. What I enjoyed the most about Ignatius's words were how they conveyed his oveblown sense of himself. He is completely impoverished, unemployed or employed in a very menial position, and yet he is always throwing out phrases like: "You will hear from our attorneys" or to his mother "What a greeting I receive after a discouraging day battling for my very existence on the streets of this savage town" (this after his first day as a hot dog vendor). Everything is exaggerated and apocalyptic in the world of "Dunces". When things don't go as Mrs. Levy wishes, doom and gloom will descend on the lives of her daughters, Susan and Sandra (oh, if there were ever suburban names from post WWII America, it is those two names). When threatened with the possibility of a lawsuit against the Levy Pants company, Mrs. Levy shouts at her husband: "Thank goodness Susan and Sandra won't know that they almost ended up selling roach tablets from door to door." Truly, I could go on forever.
The author also does an excellent job undermining the prevailing stereotyping of African Americans by putting words in the mouth of the only African American character, who I think is only ever known as "Jones". He subverts the efforts of his employer, Lana Lee, to run her bar (among other things) by parroting back to her the stereotypical beliefs shared by white people about the inferior abilities of African Americans, thereby making them sound completely ridiculous. For example, when his boss asks him to put on the record player, he answers her: "Recor playing pretty advance for color peoples. I probably break your machine." Jones has some of the slyest, funniest lines in the book.
Underlying the plot, many subplots, and interchanges among the characters is a substructure based on the writings of Boethius, a fifth/sixth century figure who was a philosopher, mathematician and musician (he wrote treatises on theology and geometry), among other talents. He is Ignatius's hero, and many references to Boethius are seeded throughout the book, from the very first paragraph: "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." I will confess that I have not read much of Boethius, but I wouldn't be surprised if the author lifted some material if not word for word, at least the essence of it. More, from the second paragraph: "The outfit (referring to Ignatius's bizarre outfit) was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life." These first two paragraphs, IF one is familiar with Boethius right from the get-go (and who isn't?) set Ignatius up as a character who judges society and culture by standards set up by a medieval philosopher. No doubt this was a frustrating way to live, and would lead one to be a misfit in any century after 1100.
A further reference to Boethius (and indeed much medieval literature and philosophpy) is Ignatius's frequent invocation of Fortuna. The Goddess Fortuna, or Fortune (Roman goddess of luck or fate), appears in one of Boethius's writings, The Consolation of Philosophy. Here is a quote in which she states: "Such is my nature, and this game I play continually: I turn the whirling wheel and the circle spins. I am glad to change the lowest to the highest, and the highest to the lowest. Mount up if you will, provided you do so under this condition, that you will not maintain that I do you wrong though you descend down when the rules of my game require it." Ignatius is prone to invoking Fortuna in moments like this: "When Fortuna spins you downward, 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 night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning." Or, "Then I silently paid homage to dear old Fortuna for snatching me from the jaws of death by rusty fork." I think that one of the novel's cleverest devices is the continual reliance on these philosophical tropes in the context of the most absurd situations.
The book is chock full of original and hilarious moments, language, interludes...and yet, as my fellow members of the Flower Street Book Club have acknowledged, it would be an injustice to ignore the deep sadness that pervades the book. A terribly deluded main character, his pathetic mother, the individuals who are depicted as living desperate lives in a confusing world...perhaps Myrna Minkoff and Jones, the ultimate outsiders (the Jew and the African American) are the only ones who have a grip on life.
I will finish by saying that the author, John Kennedy Toole, speaks as one who knew the academic world well, and in Ignatius, he has skewered the ivory tower in its creation of individuals who disdain those who are not steeped in their knowledge and indeed who cannot speak their language (which continues to become more arcane and incomprehensible to any but each other!) By creating a character who is as out of touch as Ignatius is with his world, and in describing his engagement with the world only to fuel his disdain, Toole reminds us (even if he wasn't intending to) that knowledge is as useful as its ability to transform people's lives and give us a better understanding of the world in which we live. Who, in fact, are the real dunces?
Okay, five stars.
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