Friday, January 25, 2013

Review of A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980, by John Kennedy Toole. Glossy's rating: 2 out of 10

This novel's protagonist is a spoiled, arrogant, unbelievably horrible nerd named Ignatius Riley. I happen to be a nerd. Does this have anything to do with me absolutely hating this book? I honestly don't think so.

To me Toole's biggest problem was predictability. You learn early on that in response to any stimulus Ignatius will say something rude, selfish, dishonest, deluded, and touching on one of his several favorite themes. And then you see this repeated about a thousand times. If the reader can quickly guess where conversations and bits of action are heading and then has to sit through his hunches being confirmed at interminable length, then the writer is proven to have been a sad hack.

And yes, it is possible to write inventively about an absurd, limited man who lacks self-awareness - you just need to have P.G. Wodehouse's brains and work ethic to do it.

At first I thought that the repetitiveness of the scenes featuring Ignatius might have gone unnoticed by Toole because he was writing about an exaggerated version of himself, presumably a fascinating topic to him. But the scenes between Gus Levy (Ignatius' one-time employer) and his wife are just as boringly repetitive. We see Mrs. Levy being unpleasant to her husband (and to readers: it's chalk on glass land) again and again, dozens of times in a row. Her topics and tone never change. And the fact that this often happens in real life is not an excuse: Toole was trying to make it as a novelist, not a stenographer.

We're not just told that a character named Ms. Trixie is senile, nor are we just shown a few scenes where she acts that way: we're shown many dozens of them. And there's not enough variety in these scenes to set them apart from each other in a reader's mind, to explain why there needed to be so many of them.

He wrote about everything that way. Other problems:

I wouldn't say that fiction absolutely needs characters you can root for, just that those help. There are no such characters in this book. Even suspense, which is also mostly absent here, isn't always necessary - sometimes style can entertain by itself. But this only reminds me of the fact that, stylistically, the best part of this volume is the foreword written by Walker Percy.

Most of the above was clear to me quite early. Why did I still end up finishing the novel? There's value in the fact that this is a bad book. It's certainly not something I could have learned from the Wikipedia. But how can I share this fact with anyone without having read the whole thing? The mocking ghosts of all the guys with whom I've ever argued over the Internet about Freudianism, libertarianism, Scientology and other idiocies without having read the idiocies' foundational texts first, appeared before me, angrily shaming me into reading A Confederacy of Dunces to its end. I've got to stop listening to ghosts.

The most successful parts of this novel are letters to Ignatius from his "girlfriend" Myrna. She's even more horrible than Riley, but her letters are funny, the only passages here that can be described that way. One of the stories contained in them has acquired new relevance with the passage of time. To spite Ignatius Myrna mentions an apparent hookup with a Kenyan exchange student at NYU:

"Ongah is REAL and vital. He is virile and aggressive. He rips at reality and tears aside concealing veils."

The novel was written in the early 1960s. Myrna is very leftist and very unattractive.

It's clear from this book that homophilia was not yet associated with leftism in 1963. Myrna's worldview was likely built as a catalogue of contemporary liberalism, yet she sees gays as creepy degenerates. And there was a time long before this novel was written when leftists didn't think that blacks were in any way equal to whites. Why wouldn't pedophilia be next?

Other anachronisms: the word mongoloid is used here to mean something like troglodyte. And apparently in early 1960s America one could get arrested for possession of pornography.

The celebrity Ignatius reminded me most of is Newt Gingrich. Newt is more high-functioning of course, but he's also fat, nerdy, socially conservative, very well-read, extremely conflict-prone, a history buff and was spoiled as a child. When he first became speaker I saw an interview with his mother on TV. She gave off the same sort of vibe as Riley's mother, very working class.

Ignatius is shown in a very, very bad light here. Toole depicted him as, among other things, a terrible worker. But of course Ignatius himself thinks that he's just misunderstood by idiots, that his work is actually great. This particular piece of work, this novel, was rejected for publication during its author's lifetime, no doubt at least partly because it is so awful. But tragedy and random chance have since associated the "misunderstood by idiots" excuse with Toole himself. I wouldn't say that this is very funny, but believe me, it's funnier than most of Toole's numerous attempts at humor in this book.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review of The Ionian Mission

The Ionian Mission, 1981, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.4 out of 10

At the beginning of this installment the reader is again reminded of Jack Aubrey's fecklessness ashore. Like many captains he is much too gullible for civilian life, and the reason is easy to see. In the Navy most of an officer's social circle consisted of other officers. Most men who volunteered for such dangerous and difficult work must have been overflowing with gentlemanliness. The pay wasn't very good, so the main motivating factors would have been martial spirit and the desire to serve one's country. So they must have been a pretty trustworthy, trusting bunch, an easy mark for shore-based crooks.

Nobility is a topic of conversation in this novel:

"...the common people instinctively recognized blood and accepted its superiority – they knew that a man of ancient lineage was as it were of another essence, and they could distinguish him at once, almost as though he wore a halo."

O'Brian put this speech in the mouth of a negative character, a spoiled, incompetent drunk. He wrote long after such sentiments ceased to be tolerated in cultural circles. Yet when it came time to give Jack - a fearless, honorable natural leader and a born fighter - a background, he made him the scion of an ancient landed military family with a Norman surname. Why? Obviously, it aided plausibility.

How plausible are these novels generally? The number of close escapes in them bothers me. It's not excessive in any one book by itself, but taken cumulatively they've made Jack's and Stephen's continued survival ludicrous some time ago. At first O'Brian didn't plan on writing so many installments, but when the series was extended, he obviously chose not to alter the original close escapes per volume rate.

Stephen's liberalism seems too modern to me, though I could be wrong about this.

The closeness of Jack's and Stephen's friendship seems unusual by today's standards. I have a feeling though that it wouldn't have stood out in the 1810s. I've certainly come across male friendships this close in 19th century literature before: Pierre Bezuhov and Prince Andrey immediately come to mind. If such friendships were an exclusively aristocratic phenomenon, then it would make sense for them to have disappeared together with the rest of aristocratic culture, at about the same time as duels. But were they?

I've always been curious about the fine points, the exact boundaries of pre-modern gentlemanly behavior. Here Stephen talks about these as they relate to naval warfare:

"To the nautical mind some false signals are falser than other false signals. At sea there are clearly-understood degrees of iniquity. An otherwise perfectly honourable sea-officer may state by symbol that he is a Frenchman, but he must not state that his ship has struck upon a rock, nor must he lower his colours and then start to fight again, upon pain of universal reprehension. He would have the hiss of the world against him – of the maritime world."

To what extent did that world include the Ottoman Empire? Was it held to and did it abide by the same standards? There are hints of answers to this throughout this novel, which features Turks prominently. At one point professor Graham, an expert on the Middle East, warns Jack "of the slowness of Oriental negotiation, and of the different standards of acceptable duplicity". During talks with a Turkish potentate "one of Jack’s few certainties was that the Bey’s notion of urgency and even of time itself was quite unlike his own." After a heated argument between Jack and Graham Jack admonishes Stephen for not backing him up. Stephen replies:

"You were both calling names, which is the end of all discourse. Earlier, when you were conversing like Christians, rather than roaring like Turks, I did not intervene because I thought there was substance in Graham's contention."

O'Brian had stated novels ago that Stephen's liberalism did not extend to his view of the Turks. This book made me think that this was actually the author's attitude too. The only Turkish ship described here is half-piratical by nature, but its state is still shocking: the surface of the deck cannot be seen under the accumulated dirt and there are piles of human excrement between the guns.

The Royal Navy's almost psychotic concern with cleanliness is a big theme in these books. I first read about the Russian navy's mania for cleaning about a quarter century ago. In The Surgeon's Mate, during his stay at a dirty military prison in France, Stephen muses about the difference between the world's armies and navies:

"...nor, he reflected, would any navy, even the French navy, tolerate the unwashed glass, the fetid smell, the general seediness."

I'm thinking that naval warfare has traditionally required more attention to detail, more fussiness, than either land warfare or most civilian walks of life. An obsession with cleanliness could have just been a side effect of this. However, the extreme nature of this obsession, as described by O'Brian, makes me question this theory without bringing to mind any others.

Continuing with the theme of ethnic generalization, here is Jack musing about how a long hoped-for fleet action against the French might go:

"Yes. The frigates tell us that the enemy is there under our lee"..."preferably straggling over a couple of miles of sea in two or three untidy heaps, as foreigners do"

And here he is commenting on a Lithuanian character loosing his cool:

‘Excitable foreigners,’ said Jack. ‘Jagiello is such a fine fellow that sometimes you almost forget it, but at bottom he is only a foreigner, poor soul.'

Not all of the stereotyping done by the British characters here is self-flattering though. Here is Pullings explaining to Stephen why their ship leaks in bad weather: 

"She is British-built, sir, and most of what we have sailed in, you and I, have been Spanish or French. They may not be very clever at fighting or sailing ’em, but God love us, they do know how to build."

This is a recurring topic in the series. I suspect that one of the chief factors influencing the quality of a nation's craftsmanship and manufacturing is the quality of the bottom end of its population. Everyone who can avoid working with his hands does, so it's usually the bottom that ends up making most things. It's sad of course, and one of the functions of truly good government would be to try to steer quality people towards real work. Both pre-immigration Germany and modern Japan are examples of societies with relatively high bottoms. I would think that Britain's lower classes have always been lower than Germany's and that the Celtic fringe isn't really the same thing as the Western Slavic lands. By this logic the difference in ship quality mentioned above may have meant that Britain's bottom was lower than France's and Spain's, at least during the period described in these books.

The books themselves, of course, are a testament to the extremely high quality of the top of the British ability pyramid, since that is what mostly determines the level of a society's artistic output.