Friday, April 4, 2014

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Read: 25 July to 10 August 2012
3 / 5 stars

I've come to realize that a three-star rating is my literary equivalent of "It's not you, it's me," an embarrassed, apologetic concession that I'm the real problem here. It's usually an unspoken understanding that I can recognize why a work is so universally lauded but that it just didn't tickle me the way it ought to have. Sometimes it's simply a matter of taste, sometimes it's just bad timing, sometimes it's me having a visceral reaction to a work of fiction that shouldn't get under my skin so deeply. My three stars do not do this book justice, I realize that: They do, however, reflect just how torturous it was for me to watch Ignatius Reilly not get the thorough comeuppance or righteous bitch-slap that both hands of Fortuna owed such a thundering manchild.

So I always thought this was written by a contemporary of Jonathan Swift's. Why? Maybe it's because of the title. Maybe it's because Toole is the first person since Swift who could make satire purr like a satisfied lap cat. Maybe it's because this is a novel packed with odious vermin of the highest order. Whatever the cause for my wildly mistaken notion, I don't remember what set me straight, nor do I recall why gaining such corrective insight propelled me on a frantic mission to both own and read this book as soon as humanly possible: All I am c
ertain of is that the urge to get my hands on Confederacy of Dunces was impossible to put off 'til later, which is my preferred approach to doing almost anything. But every paper-and-ink copy I found had a cover that I absolutely hated (and now that I know the character, I'm annoyed that Ignatius looks more like a happy-go-lucky buffoon on many of the cover images when he is, in fact, a detestable, pretentious little wanker who masks his inability to relate to other people with an abrasive, over-educated front). The solution? Downloading this on my trusty but much-neglected Kindle.

It's not that I don't love my Kindle (because I do, to an almost psychotic extent). Nor does my bookworm snobbery extend to the assumption that digital books are automatically inferior to their traditional predecessors. It's just that, after my e-reader became less of a reading device and more of an avenue for proving my Scrabble dominance over that dick AI even though I almost always wind up with more vowels than I think the game really includes, I simply grew accustomed to not using Ruggles the Kindle for his intended nose-in-a-book purpose (yes, I recognize the irony in naming my e-reader after an author who was famously reluctant for his works to be digitalized).

But this isn't about my Kindle: This is more about the shiny new iPhone I acquired recently, the very device that signaled another blow to my pseudo-Luddite ways by thrusting me into the joyous world of being owned by a smartphone (.... I'm actually not sure if that was sarcasm, either). Because the first thing I did after shelling out money on yet another Apple product, aside from blowing more than half of my monthly data allotment on downloading selections from my iTunes library before even leaving the Verizon store, was put the Kindle app on my as-of-yet unnamed phone.

Seeing as I am, however reluctantly, part of the generation that feels unsettlingly naked without one's phone, my phone goes almost everywhere with me -- and now, so does my Kindle's vast treasury of reading material. Suddenly, the hatred I felt (and still feel) for one Ignatius Jacques Reilly grew in all directions, as if it, too, were glutting itself on Paradise Hot Dogs. I hated Ignatius at work. I hated him at home. I hated him in the bathroom. I hated him in bed, on the couch, in other people's cars, while waiting at everything from the grocery store to the dentist's office to the gas station, I hated him in a variety of locations to rival Dr. Seuss's rhyming lists. My burning dislike of the book's main character slipped its tentacles of ire around nearly every facet of my life to the point where I was transferring my irritation to probably undeserving but still irksome strangers.

Reader, I hated him.

And it felt bloody freeing, even if I'll never get the closure of punching Ignatius right in his stupid, Vaselined mustache. I'm the kind of person who feels uncomfortable when characters in books or movies are staunchly positioned under a storm cloud of shitty luck and proceed to have misfortune rained upon them to an allegedly humorous effect: Being in a position to shamelessly enjoy every irate former employer's final tongue lashing, to celebrate everyone who peeved Ignatius the way he annoyed the hell out of me (Dorian Greene, I think I might actually love you), to snicker at every unflattering description of a character who I loathed made me feel less awful about finally reveling in the seemingly downward trajectory of a character whose downfall I wished I could have on my otherwise itchy conscience. It was such a nice change to embrace the inevitable onslaught of woe that came rushing at a story's main character for once.

But Ignatius even ruined that for me, as his titanic girth is buoyed by an ego that just won't quit. What willful refusal to accept responsibility! What blissful ignorance of one's own flaws! What enthusiastic defiance of reality! The mental gymnastics required in tirelessly painting oneself as the eternal victim would have impressed me if the character executing such skillful lack of accepting blame for his lot in life weren't such an overgrown brat.

Though it's not like many of the other characters had a whole lot more going for them other than reluctant sympathy and the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The duplicitous shrew Lana Lee probably should have been the most detestable member of the cast: While Ignatius is simply too emotionally immature to exist in harmony with the real world, Lana is straight-up starved of all redeeming qualities. As hard as I tried to sympathize with Irene, Ignatius's poor, long-suffering mother, she was clearly all talk and no action well before the book began, as Ignatius exhibits a lifetime of experience manhandling her into emotional submission -- let this book be a cautionary tale for the long-term damage of passive parenting! As for Mrs. Levy? She must have inflicted me with some kind of temporary Tourette's syndrome because I was helpless to squelch the string of profanities that wrenched themselves from my mouth every time she opened hers.

On the other hand, there were some redeeming dramatis personae to be found amidst Toole's merry band of walking character flaws. If Dorian's brief appearance was a breath of fresh air, Jones's presence was the life raft I clung to in a maelstrom of assholery. I might have actually cheered at the end when Officer Mancuso got the kudos he deserved after four-hundred-some pages of being shat on. I was pretty keen on Mr. Levy until Ignatius dug his teabag-scented claws into him. And, okay, fine: There were actually a lot of folks who I liked simply because they didn't annoy me, like Darlene and Mr. Clyde. Actually, Darlene's cockatoo might have been one of the most likable characters in the book by virtue of his role in kicking off the climax.

And then there's Myrna, who just might be the most effective foil ever. We hate in others what we hate most about ourselves, and Ignatius love-hates her because they're too much alike in all the wrong ways. Their letters are strokes of narrative brilliance, offering a richly suggested history between the two: I got such a kick out of how Myrna is the only character who gets even a kernel of truth from Ignatius and she assumes that he's exaggerating with every stroke of his pen. I probably would have liked her less had she been more of an active force here, so I'll be happy with how stingy Toole was with her scenes.

This should, by all rights, be at least a four-star novel. It's Toole's fault that he was too adept at creating characters that embody so much of what disgusts me in real people.

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