September 23, 2011

The CCLaP 100: "A Confederacy of Dunces," by John Kennedy Toole

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
By John Kennedy Toole
Book #61 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Originally written in the 1960s, although not published until 1980 (but more on that in a bit), John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the Late Modernist New Orleans of 1963, and mostly follows the ignoble adventures of one Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps the most unpleasant "hero" in the entire history of the narrative arts -- an absurdist amalgam of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy and The Office's Michael Scott, this morbidly obese, self-deluded intellectual is just a critical mass of smugness, hyperbole and hypocrisy, a lazy, racist, self-satisfied gadabout who believes that every human invention since literally the Renaissance has been an apocalyptic detriment to society, and is sincerely flummoxed as to why the world doesn't just naturally accept him as their moral superior as he knows he is. Or, perhaps "racist" isn't the right word for Ignatius, since it's clear that he's a champion of blacks and gays in a pre-civil-rights Deep South, albeit for his own comically twisted reasons (he's sure that he can convince them to perpetuate a lumpen/luddite revolt that will revert America back to a pre-technological society, with of course himself as their Trotskyist leader); and to be frank, the main reason to even read this book is not for the minimalist plot holding it together (Ignatius's live-in mother needs money, forcing Ignatius to ineptly hold a series of bottom-rung jobs for the first time in his life), but rather for the way it languidly and with much love explores all the dark back alleys of '60s New Orleans itself, from the crumbling go-go district to pre-Stonewall gay soirees, black slums, the mentally ill and homeless crowd that is centered around a low-class hot dog franchise, and a lot more, as our disgusting but fascinating unreliable narrator takes us on a cracked tour of it all, never understanding why the "mongoloids and whores" won't simply defer to his own unquestioned brilliance.

The argument for it being a classic:
The main reason this seems to be considered a classic is from that mesmerizing real-life history I referred to before; originally written in the Kennedy years, its utter rejection by the academic world was one of the contributing factors that led to Toole's mental breakdown and eventual suicide in 1969*, with his mother of all people finding a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in a trunk and spending years literally begging people in the publishing industry to read it, with its eventual printing in 1980 resulting in not only a huge bestseller and an immediate new touchstone in the world of Southern fiction, but even with Toole posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize a year later. But there's an important reason that people went so crazy for it once it was out, argue its fans, besides merely its interesting history; and that's because it's a dark comic masterpiece, they claim, a work truly ahead of its time whose reflections can be seen in our current popular culture no matter where you turn, and that heralded the birth of an entirely new literary genre (the curmudgeonly, sneakily charming, self-satisfied retro-obsessed lout) which has influenced everyone from Daniel Clowes to Paul Giamatti to literally an entire wing of full-time academic authors.

The argument against:
There seems to be two main arguments against this being a classic, both of them ones we've discussed in this essay series before: first, like the criticism leveled at many of the genteel writers of the Edwardian period, critics say that neither Toole nor his one adult novel have had enough of an impact on the arts in general to be considered a classic, certainly a great book but more a modern fluke than anything else, one that will quickly be forgotten once the generation that was around when it was first published (i.e. us) are eventually dead and gone; and then second, like you sometimes also see from angry online reviewers of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, some people find the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces to be simply too repulsive to be worth reading about, an entire parade of unredeemable losers whose pathetic antics and Archie-Bunker-like casual prejudices are like fingernails on a chalkboard to some readers, making this not only a non-classic in their eyes but an abomination to be violently tossed across the room into the nearest trashcan.

My verdict:
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of so-called "anti-villain" tales, the term I came up with a few years ago for literary narrators who at first seem like quirky yet normal protagonists, but then become more and more monstrous as the story continues (for two excellent examples, see Sam Savage's Cry of the Sloth and Tod Wodicka's mindblowingly great And All Shall Be Well...); and now that I've read A Confederacy of Dunces, I realize that all these characters can be traced back to the douchbaggy master Ignatius himself, the ur-antivillain from which all the rest are merely pale copies. And so of course I not only adored this novel, but very quickly deemed it to be one of the greatest novels in history; but I also acknowledge that this is a highly personal, therefore highly biased opinion today, for a supposed "objective" series of write-ups like these CCLaP 100 essays, and that there's also a very strong and valid case to be made for this novel by despicable in some people's eyes, and for its critics to not only mildly dislike it but to hate it with a burning passion.

And indeed, even if you eventually end up loving the book yourself, admittedly there's a lot to get used to at the beginning of it that simply doesn't conform to the usual hallmarks of the three-act narrative story arc; we're not used to our novels' narrators being so thoroughly vile and detestable, certainly not used anymore to seeing racism and homophobia so openly displayed, and have been conditioned our entire lives to believe that a piece of literature isn't worth reading unless we find ourselves rooting for the main character to succeed at their quest, unless they are sympathetic enough that we care what happens to them. That's a tricky tightrope to straddle, to write a whole book about disgusting people but that makes us still compelled to find out what happens to them; but much like David Simon did with his utterly remarkable television show The Wire, Toole is a master here at making us interested in utterly unlikeable people, a comic tour-de-force that incidentally teaches us more about the coming countercultural revolution just around the historical corner than a thousand beat poets and proto-hippies all added together. Although in many ways the flash in the pan that its critics accuse it of being, in this case it's also hard to deny that A Confederacy of Dunces is a legitimate classic, if for nothing else the way its style and concepts have so thoroughly infiltrated our general culture by now, thirty years since its publication and now fifty years since its original penning.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Alice Through the Lookingglass, by Lewis Carroll
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

Read even more about A Confederacy of Dunces: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

*And by the way, despite the similarities, don't mistake this for an autobiographical novel; although the overweight Toole obviously suffered from mental problems himself, lived with his mother as an adult for a short time, and based a few of the plot developments on real experiences (for example, he once actually was a hot dog vendor who quickly ate all his profits), it's also clear that in the academic world he was a witty, popular, respected professor, in a steady relationship for most of his youth, who apparently did wicked impressions at cocktail parties, making his eventual mental breakdown and suicide even more tragic.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:28 PM, September 23, 2011. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |