Jon's Reviews > A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
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May 26, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites
Recommended for: Anyone and Everyone
Read in June, 2009 — I own a copy

I got myself on a mini Pulitzer kick and after much internet search I settled on A Confederacy of Dunces. The combination of the cartoon cover and reviews claiming "masterwork of comedy", "radiant", and "fireworks on a stormy night" filled my head with the idea of a comical adventure full of wit, satire, and depth. I'm not sure that I can disagree with that description on all fronts, but I did finish the book feeling slightly cheated out of my depth.

This novel is about Ignatius J. Reilly and his interactions with the, aptly named, confederacy of dunces. Ignatius is a big dick, and I can't come up with a more elegant description of his character in two words or fewer. There is nothing elegant about him. He has the social bearing of a five year old with the inability, or maybe just refusal, to submit to a perspective outside of his own.

You're first introduced to Ignatius on a street corner as he browses the crowd for people to hate; "studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress." You're quickly introduced to his fascination with "taste and decency" and "theology and geometry", my favorite of Ignatius' obsessions, next to his lashing fetish. He describes himself as "forced to function in a century which I loathe," which is most easily confirmed in his contempt for anything post-Henry VII, with the exception of the modern pastry and hot dog. Ignatius is intelligent and well educated. His vocabulary is impressive and in spite of the flawed logic behind his relentless self defense, his arguments are severely entertaining and clever enough to keep you laughing. One of the largest problems with Ignatius, the one you want to strangle him for, is that he spends most of his days bombarding himself with exactly the people, television, and other media he's bound to hate. He practically gets off to others' lack of "taste and decency" and "theology and geometry". As for what Ignatius literally gets off to, Toole does remove the abstract in a passage which left me quite disturbed and, after a second reading, full of a shocked and disgusted laughter.

John Kennedy Toole writes as if the entire city of New Orleans is full of stupid worthless fools; and here's where I felt cheated by that lack of depth. I spent the whole book searching for an attractive character, someone to champion as the protagonist, but I struggled to find anyone with any sort of admirable stability. I kept expecting someone to emerge and provide a sort of balancing competitive dialogue with Ignatius, or maybe to take command of their relationship and snap him out of his self-absorbed reality. I was looking for a meaning or lesson less obvious than this gruesome example of humanity; I don't need an author to give me 300 pages of a big dick to understand what a big dick is.

I let this search for meaning last as long as my hope for Ignatius' great turnaround and self-realization did - just under half the book. When I realized it wasn't coming, I chilled out and found that Toole's story is really F'in funny. Anyone can make jokes out of worthless characters, but he does a good job exploiting their weaknesses and bringing them to an unprecedented lack of worth, which is more impressive than just making fun of weak and ugly personalities. Toole's real genius rests in the interconnectedness of all his characters (there are a lot of them), and in Ignatius' language.The story and side plots end up tying together beautifully and whether you want to reach into the page and punch him in the face or not, Ignatius' rants are fantastic and he is one of the most consistent and fully conceived characters I've ever read.

By the end of the book I found only two or three characters whom I considered dynamic enough to exist outside of this story, Ignatius not included, and for that reason along with the cover art, I guess, I pictured the entire sequence of events in a sort of pastel, cel-shaded world. I spent the first hundred pages highlighting my favorite passages and, upon looking back during a break, realized I had orange marks on almost every page. The book is hilarious and I could honestly spend another two novels reading about the "genius of my worldview," Ignatius J. Reilly. This is one of my favorite books ever and I highly recommend it to anyone. I would just like to make clear, however, that Ignatius is not some misunderstood genius born into the wrong time. He is a big dick - a big dick who didn't get spanked enough as a kid. I would suggest you read this book for its comedy and language - not for any sort of deep message.
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