Review: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

[This post belongs to my 2018 reading project.]

In A Confederacy of Dunces, a highly-educated layabout is forced to look for a job, with dramatic consequences for everyone who comes into contact with him, including his alcoholic mother, a hapless police officer, a tyrannical pornographer, and a henpecked industrialist.

It’s best known for exogenous reasons: it was published and won a Pulitzer prize after it’s author committed suicide; attempts to turn it into a film seem cursed; and it captures the accent and atmosphere of New Orleans particularly well.

Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist, feels contemporary. Or his situation does: there are a lot of over-educated people around right now for whom the academic system can find no place (even though it made them the way they are, and unfitted them for non-academic life). They’re out of work, many living at home with their parents. The elbow-patch precariat, let’s call them. Half my friends seem to belong to it, and Ignatius Reilly is archetypal.

Ignatius also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a writer, activist, and self-caricature. Like Ignatius, he longed for the middle ages, maintained an operatic private fantasy starring himself, often devised harebrained and reactionary political schemes, displayed great quantities of verbal energy, was rotund, and sported a tremendous mustache. Ignatius quotes Chesterton once, so I suspect the resemblance is no accident.

G.K. Chesterton

A Confederacy of Dunces is satire, as its title — a quotation from Swift — portends. But I don’t think it deserves respect for the trenchancy of its mockery. As this review details, its satire implies a pretty unenlightened view of the world and relies on lots of pernicious stereotypes. Most of the humor arises from the contrast between contemptible private behavior and public pretentiousness. Characters are forever doing gross things when no one is looking, then grandstanding when someone is. What sets Ignatius Reilly apart, and makes him lovable amidst the “dunces” that surround him is that he’s publicly contemptible and privately pretentious; he grandstands in the theater of his own mind and the pages of his diary, and not just when bullying his interlocutors.

A Confederacy of Dunces characterizes through speech, then throws its characters violently against one another in conversation. Toole relies upon a very specific type of dramatic situation to create all his best scenes. This situation invariably has three parties, usually each party is a single person but sometimes one is replaced by a collective, functioning like a greek chorus. Two of the three parties in a given scene are antagonists attempting to manipulate each other with words, and the third is somehow oblivious and continually interrupts the sparring of the first two. This situation produces scenes that feel like they have dynamos in them. Unfortunately, once you notice it you can also predict how each scene will unfold.

Apparently, the novel reproduces the structure of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, which doesn’t surprise me, but doesn’t particularly interest me either.

I read A Confederacy of Dunces much faster than I expected to, and I feel like I learned something about scene construction.


The Untranslated January 5, 2018 Reply

A pithy and thought-provoking review with zero plot-retelling, which made me feel like ordering the book immediately. Great job, Robert!

Robert Minto January 5, 2018 Reply

Ah, you don’t realize how particularly nice the terms were in which you chose to praise this review! I’m specifically trying to see if I can say interesting, original stuff about these books, in under 500 words, and without doing more than stating the situation (and not the outworking in time) of a story. So — “pithy and thought-provoking with zero plot-retelling” is my entire goal here, and it makes me very happy to hear that it worked for you! Thanks.

Your thoughts?