Friday, February 13, 2015

A Confederacy of Dunces Book Review By Zombie Logic

The title Confederacy of Dunces is simultaneously a great but somewhat off-putting title for the book by John Kennedy Toole. It's a great title because it's evocative and provocative, and grabs your attention immediately, but in my opinion it has led to some people having a negative reaction to the book and its main character, Ignatius Reilly. It implies a sweeping conspiratorial plot involving so much more than the book really delivers. And the book doesn't promise to deliver any grand, sweeping indictments against society. It's really not about society at all in any real way. What it is is a story about very few people. People without the means or wherewithall to make any serious impact on society at all. So the title is both successful and misleading.

Confederacy of Dunces is a book I had meant to read for a couple of decades before I actually did. And if I had to guess just from the title, or even what little I knew about the book from seeing it mentioned other places, I probably would have assumed it was about a troubled genius who was at odds with society, and through his eccentric but brilliant observations exacts his revenge by using intelligence to expose them for the hypocrites they are.


That is absolutely not what A Confederacy of Dunces is about. So, I had a slow start with the book, as many readers have. I didn't like Ignatius Reilly, and I didn't think he was an undiscovered genius, and frankly I was quite happy that he was miserable and that other people found him disgusting and insufferable. Because he is. I think Toole felt the same way about the character, and wasn't in any way trying to dissuade the reader from disliking him. So, where was the book to go from there? I was expecting an anti-hero that I immediately identified with, and wanted to root for as he took on the Herculean task of challenging the stupidity of modern society. No dice. Because that's not what the book is about.

I don't have to like Ignatius Reilly to enjoy A Confederacy of Dunces. And even at the end of the book, I didn't. Fortunately the book succeeds at what it was really trying to do: spin a farcical tale about a small group of people from different backgrounds in New Orleans that spirals into a ridiculously funny and improbably climax. The dialogue is great. At first I wasn't finding the book funny at all. Until about midpoint. And the reason for that is I was holding on to some expectations that I had about what this book was going to be about. It's a story. And once you give up on the idea that the characters are representing some overarching statement it's a funny story. It builds to a crescendo in Chapter 13 that rivals any farce you've seen before.

John kennedy Toole
I read A Confederacy of Dunces over several weeks, but finished the final 100 pages in two sittings because I really became fascinated by the world where these characters lived, and I knew it was going to pay off. Which it did. I can understand the central flaw of the book, namely that Ignatius Reilly is a grotesque blowhard, and a subpar human being. But what I can say is the wheel of fortune is set in motion in this book, and the characters move forward. Some change. Can Ignatius Reilly? If the answer is yes, then you'll probably enjoy the book. If you believe the answer is no, it will just seem like a torturous character study of someone you find obnoxious and want to fail. However, there is also another option on how to approach the book. And that is to simply let the story unfold, be amused by these characters, and not try to apply any cookie cutter presumptions about what grand statements the book might or might not be making. 

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