Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Transcript of the Darrouzet-Nardi book club
Mom: Confederacy of Dunces was one of my favorite book club selections. First, I found it laugh-out-loud hilarious. Ignatius Reilly is as original a character as Huckleberry Finn and worlds better than anything I have seen in contemporary fiction except maybe Housekeeping.
Sociologically, the depiction of class and race relations in New Orleans was brilliant. Jones was another favorite character with his lament about the minimal wage and his sharp-eyed commentary from near the bottom of the social heap. That Toole was able to characterize him with no Uncle Tom sentimentality or liberal nostalgie de la boue was remarkable. Ignatius's mother was also a character who could easily have slid into pathos but she both loved her son and refused to be conned by him, always keeping a bit of distance and her own dignity.
I liked the cadence of the New Orleanian accents and the non-travelogue descriptions, very spare, or New Orleans. It could so easily have been merely a novel of local color.
Treating classic American themes in a classic American locale, the novel manages to be entirely original, to draw us closer to its themes because it presents them afresh. It's not easy to be funny and this is tour de force humor. I can think of few novels that sustain the laughs so consistently.
However, I realize from talking to Christopher that my reading is very different from his--he didn't like the book that much. It's hard to say why one person laughs and the next doesn't.
Structually, the book was quite a mess--some of the minor characters didn't do much, some of the scenes at Ignatius's various jobs went on way too long, and I have no idea about the Minkoff character and what she was about.
Another thing I liked was that the novel had no earnestness; it was not heartwarming, it was not about the triumph of the human spirit. It was about the absurdity of life--but not just that, the fact that this absurdity is differentially contextualized by social class and race. So Jones bears a real burden whereas the factory owner and his wife are utterly ridiculous but their situation cushions them. No one in the entire novel is even faintly heroic and yet their struggles have interest and each is unique. Despite what I've been saying about race and class, Toole manages not to trade in stereotypes or sociological generalization. Jones's pronouncements about the minimal wage are an original poem or tune, repeated like a song sung for its familiarity, a better lesson in the economics of haves and have-nots than a whole slew of graphs and charts. Ignatius is full of unstoppable indignation at modern life--certainly one of the themes I resonated with--but there's never a cliche. He delivers his volcanic eruptions in his characteristic mock formal diction, signaling he's above it all but also letting us laugh at him.
Jeanette: I really liked this book. I thought it was really funny. I liked all the minor characters. (I'm noticing that I usually like stories with lots of minor characters.) And I especially liked Ignatius. I think one of my favorite parts was how he would go to the movies. I think a lot of people do that (to a lesser extent) when they go to movies, watch TV, read books, etc. I mean I think a lot of people act like they hate something so much, but they always continue to watch, or read. I agree with Mom that some of his job scenes went on too long, and that the Minkoff character wasn't necessary, although I did like the end, especially when Ignatius was offended at seeing the small truck with no barred windows go to his house to pick him up. Well, I enjoyed this book a lot, it was one of my favorites of the book club, (I can't decide whether or not it beats Ubik but other than that I think it wins).
Chris: Alright, I've found some time to weigh in on Confederacy. As Mom mentioned in her email, I didn't like the book much. I'll try to sift through in my analysis why I didn't like the book. For one, I've discovered that I prefer likeable protagonists.
Ignatius wins for originality; he ranks up there with Owen Meany. I'll never forget Ignatius and whenever I hear the word “valve,” I'll check to see if mine is acting up. That said, he didn't strike me as believable. Granted, I grew up in a suburb and now attend university, but his utter disregard for all others struck me as nearly impossible. Especially considering Toole didn't give a sufficient tale of his background to warrant such behavior. That is, besides some reference to a cat he lost as a young child that hurt him so...
As expressed by both Mom and Jeanette, Jones was a great character. I loved the sections of the book that were about Jones. His lingo and demeanor came across as genuine and more realistic than Ignatius. The constant threat of calling the police and him defaulting back to vagrancy was an important aspect of the book for me. It created a strong sense of setting in Confederacy.
Ignatius's mother wasn't my favorite character. Certainly pitiable, but I couldn't relate to her on almost any level. Ignatius treated her poorly and she chose interesting friends. Then the man came into the book and started kind of dating her. That never really went anywhere... I guess her devotion/refusal to connect with Ignatius as Mom pointed out was her defining characteristic.
Minkoff should have been better developed. In fact, I'd say that for the majority of the characters in the book.
Alright, after having written some I've noted my two major critiques of Confederacy, both related to character development: (1) A lot of characters were introduced, but they never came together in a meaningful way. The chapters featured bits about a lot of characters, sometimes upwards of four or five different people and/or couples, but in the end it was never tied together. What happened to the owners of Levy's? They made shorts after their secretary was allowed to retire... What happened with Ignatius's mother and her man? They kind of dated at the end... The dude who ran into Ignatius around town and invited him to the party? It bombed and we heard nothing more from him... The kid who had pornography and hid it in Ignatius's cart? Ignatius found him out and took advantage of him for a bit... (my list could go on). I guess I felt as if something of more consequence should have come from at least some of them.
(2) The more focal characters weren't always developed well enough to explained to a degree of my liking. I already spoke about how I couldn't figure out Ignatius. Minkoff was particularly underexplained. She went to university with him... As counterexamples to this part though, I must say Jones was well played out and the owners of Levy's had something going for them. Their interaction and status of privledge (as explained by Mr. Levy having the company handed to him by his father) proved insight and direction on the part of Toole.
Those two points combined with the fact that I didn't like the plot very much (lots of extraneous sub-plots that never pulled together to bring about the plot in a unified manner) and the fact that I didn't find the book particularly funny made me not enjoy it that much.
This said though I understand (although don't grok) why this book was a Pulitzer and was liked by so many people. It was very original and provided what must have been a fresh outtake for fiction in the mid eighties. This isn't like a bad movie where roll my eyes at those who enjoyed it. In the end, Confederacy just wasn't for me. I am open to further discussion. The book took me awhile to complete and so I could have missed some critical connections in the book.
Dad: Thanks for your comments, Chris. I can see why one would not find it the greatest. I enjoyed it for the most part. It was very refreshing writing and quite unique--but I did find the middle section redundant, with little happening but further vignettes of Ignatius's audacious outlandish self-righteousness about stuff in our society which is, well, pretty damn useless and deserving of ridicule.
I agree with Mom and you that the undercurrent of class and race were the best parts. Toole really wrote a scathing piece here about work and race, class. Also, Jones was quite the key, a great balance to Ignatius--the more I think of it, perhaps a deliberate contrast?
Jones is the opposite of self-righteous--he believes he has little chance but to play along, albeit subversively. He cannot wear his subversion on his giant sleeve like Ignatius does. Ignatius's mother was perhaps the most fully rounded character, going back and forth between supporting her pathologically eccentric son to wanting to break out from under his abuses of her as well as her interest in the man she finally ends up dating.
The stuff about the owner and his wife, the Levy's, which is by the way a joke about Levi's the jeans, as the Levy's are second generation pants makers--well that stuff is about class too, and work and ownership and milking capitalist cows with no regard for anything else.
I never got the old lady at work who would retire.
Overall, I think of the text itself as almost cartoon-like. You could see the lines and description in big tear-drops in a graphic novel. Indeed, perhaps if Toole had come along 30 years later, Confederacy of Dunces would have been a graphic novel. Patrolman Mancuso, Mr Gonzalez: they are all like characters almost out of the Simpsons. Indeed, the more I think about it, the whole book is like a very dark, twisted, pretty sad Simpsonville.
Seen as cartoon and caricature as much as anything else--without even really trying to maintain that fiction or air of “reality,” which Irving maintains in Owen Meany, Toole draws up a bunch of mythical creatures here, and they do often work as “opposites” of one another--and in many cases, with inversions of the expected.
Thus Ignatius is a virgin and his sometimes girlfriend Myrna is the wild one, the experienced one--though even here, Toole is contrasting the “of another time” virtues of Toole about sex with some of the idiocies of the sexual revolution days that Myrna character works to parody. But what was her point, as Bonnie says? Well, she is one person that attempts to draw out this horribly conflicted character into some semblance of normalcy, even if that normalcy is warped into satire. And of course it is Myrna who saves him at the book's dramatic end, which I really enjoyed. If this were a darker, cheesier, contemporary book, it might have turned out that Ignatius's excitement at seeing her arrive to save him at the very last minute from the funny farm was sadly, horribly misplaced. I thought perhaps his keepers had gotten to her and she was part of the conspiracy too, her being a kind of Judas character delivering him up--but no! She is the rescuer.
Anthony: Every intelligent person has an element of Ignatius Reilly inside of them. Anyone blessed with higher than average intelligence occasionally feels disdain for the meatheads that surround them. Now, Ignatius was so obsessed with his superior intellect that he couldn't stand to be around pretty much anybody, even Myrna, whom he was in love with. Ignatius would judge anyone and anything on their “geometry,” which doesn't really mean anything beyond Ignatius's own opinions, reasonable or otherwise! Because his high IQ was complemented by an utter lack of common sense, Ignatius was an extreme--but I think still believable--character.
While I was in the bookstore purchasing my copy of Confederacy, I glanced through a recently published collection of Richard Feynman's letters. There is a letter from Feynman to Stephen Wolfram, whom I know that Dad knows, and perhaps the rest of you are familiar with. Wolfram is a physicist, mathematician, and computer scientist: very intelligent by any measure. Wolfram had written Feynman for advice about starting a company. In Feynman's characteristically non-serious and hilarious style (Feynman is the anti-Ignatius), he tells Wolfram not to start the company because Wolfram would have to interact with non-technical people, which Wolfram had apparently described to Feynman as “idiots.” After that advice, Feynman closes the letter with the same unsolicited advice that Myrna is constantly giving Ignatius: go fall madly in love. Now Wolfram is far from Ignatius in many respects; mainly, Wolfram has actually done something with himself. But he has some unmistakably Ignatian qualities that make me believe that a real-life Ignatius really must be out there somewhere. Recent pictures of Wolfram even demonstrate a possible addiction to Dr. Nuts and Paradise products...
I wonder why people did not like Myrna Minkoff, the “musky minx!” I thought she was an ingenious character. Perhaps having met Myrna after Myrna when I was a student at Berkeley, I found her nearly as hilarious as Ignatius. Mom, didn't you meet these people when you were at Berkeley in the 60's?! She is the indignant, energetic, high-horse riding, sex-positive liberal pseudo-intellectual. Only Myrna could find Ignatius's obnoxious invectives “against our century” endearing or sensible. I would have liked to have seen more of her; Chris is right that she could have been developed more.
Toole's writing, his diction in particular, was wonderfully entertaining. Much like when I read Dave Barry, I felt like I was laughing at the very words that Toole chose to use and combine. I loved it when Ignatius called George his “pubescent nemesis.” I loved it when Myrna called Ignatius's writings “gems of nihilism.” I laughed when Ignatius told Myrna that only one person would come to her lecture, and that it would be an exhibitionist waving his “crabbed organ like a club...” I loved how Ignatius imagines the worst, in detail: “They probably spread grease on the street after nightfall, hoping motorists like you will spin toward their hovel.” ; “I would probably be found in some gutter, icicles dangling from all of my orifices...” Ignatius's carefully crafted insults were some of the funniest parts of the book: his letter to his professor--“I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli...” and his letter to “Mr. I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.”--“You are, in your incomprehensible babble, unable to assimilate stimulating concepts of commerce into your retarded and blighted worldview.”
There was a lot of good vocabulary in the book as well, particularly in Ignatius's pompous scriblings. I may put together a glossary at some point, since this book had the best words since Ubik. I especially enjoyed learning the word “eructations” in the context of Ignatius. A final example is one of the best character-developing quotations I've seen: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Since there has been a fair amount of discussion of the race relations in the book, here is another one of my favorite passages from one of Ignatius's writings, which is both hilarious and incisive:
Perhaps I should have been a Negro. I suspect that I would have been a large and terrifying one, continually pressing my ample thigh against the withered thighs of old white ladies in public conveyances a great deal and eliciting more than one shriek of panic. Then, too, if I were a Negro, I would not be pressured by my mother to find a good job, for no good jobs would be available. My mother herself, a worn old Negress, would be too broken by years of underpaid labor as a domestic to go out bowling at night. She and l could live most pleasantly in some moldy shack in the slums in a state of ambitionless peace, realizing contentedly that we were unwanted, that striving was meaningless.
I'll wait to analyze this fully when I see you all or in a future installment, but I will point out that the theme of race relations in New Orleans could not be more relevant today in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A friend of mine who has been working in Mississippi feeding Katrina refugees, had read Confederacy and said that Ignatius's mother and her friends are the people they are feeding down there. Furthermore, one of my housemates has been doing ethnographic research on race relations during and after the hurricane. His research appears to show that the race relations down there today show some disturbing similarities to the race relations that existed when Toole wrote Confederacy in the sixties. As everyone has pointed out, Jones (with his “cumulus formations”) was a funny and remarkably poignant character in the context of race relations.
I loved the ending. I did not expect it to be so satisfying and happy! I learned from a segment of “This American Life” that in the romance novel industry, they call this kind of narrative conclusion, in which everyone gets what they deserve, “emotional justice.” The emotional justice at the end of Confederacy was a brilliant juxtaposition to the bunglings of the characters and the generally cynical ambiance of the book.
I liked Confederacy a lot because I loved the characters; Ignatius in particular was hilarious. I talked to one friend about Confederacy and she felt the way Chris did, that she didn't find it all that funny and was massively bored two thirds of the way through. On the other hand, I talked to another friend a while back and he recommended the book because he found it so entertaining. Chris said that he “didn't find the book particularly funny.” I would hypothesize that the style of humor makes or breaks the book for its readers, and that not everyone would find all of the hijinks as funny as I did--that is, laughable to the point where the person on the plane asks me what on Earth I'm reading.