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.


  1. Thank God someone agrees with me! Among the least unfunny books ever written. Yes, all the characters are unlikable but especially Ignatius. An offensive, mentally ill paranoid with illusions of grandeur, a completely unsympathetic character!

  2. My goodness, you missed the whole point of the book, and Toole's masterpiece. This is the most sophmoric and unenlightening review I have ever read.

    1. What do you think was the point of this book?

    2. The point of CoD is to satirize people exactly like you, who believe that the socially awkward conjoining of conventional knowledge and ego-preserving arrogance that happens in their psyches somehow magically adds up to intelligence.

    3. You are the one spouting conventional "knowledge". The view of feminism and postmodernism that you expressed in comments to my other posts is conventional. My view of them isn't. Igantious Riley's views, as described by Tool, aren't conventional either. In other words, you got it all backwards.

      Then there's the inconsistency. First you tell me that my views are weird and outdated, then you tell me that they're conventional. Pick one. You can't have both.

    4. I apologize for disturbing your sleep.