A Confederacy of Dunces

About ten years ago I bought a copy of “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole in the local bookstore. I had gone through most of the science fiction and fantasy books on the shelves at the time and while I wasn’t in the habit of reading random general fiction, the title caught my eye while I was browsing for something new to read. The blurb on the cover described it this way, “The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel featuring Ignatius Reilly and his marvelous, madcap adventures in New Orleans.” At the time, after I read a few chapters, I was somewhat repulsed by the characters and the harsh meanness and stopped reading, eventually pushing the book aside completely and forgetting about it.

The other day I found the book again – it’s a small hardcover with one of those smooth/slick, but not shiny jackets – still looked good, if a bit dusty. Since I was once again looking for something to read, I decided to give it another shot. I got to the same point in the book again and remembered why I stopped reading it before, but this time I kept reading. I wasn’t exactly “interested” in the characters, but the writing itself was actually rather good and I didn’t have any other books on hand and was rather desparate. So I forged ahead.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that I “liked” the book, as stories that involve a lot of severely maladjusted and unconscious characters usually just depress me (and I like to be inspired by what I read) but I’ll still say it was a GOOD book. Well-written. Characters and plot all worked really well and intertwined in perfect and unexpected ways. I had to skip some of the diatribes written about the horrors of societal decline by the main character – they were just too long and too well-done – written just like someone with a masters degree and a persecution complex would write them – but they DID fit the story (from what I skimmed/gleaned.) I’d probably call the adventures “insanity and disfunction” rather than “madcap”, but maybe that’s the difference between now and 1980 (original publication date).

Interesting – just now when I was looking for the publication date, I found a quote on an adjacent page that I had missed before, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” – Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting. If you take that with a note of implied sarcasm and paranoia, you’ll be well on your way to understanding Ignatius Reilly.

Another note about this book… it was brought to a publisher’s attention by the author’s mother after the author’s death at the age of 32, by suicide. Considering that the main characters are about an adult son who still lives with his mother, that’s very interesting. Life is weird, and “fiction” seems more and more a useless sort of label when you look at the whole of things. (As an aside – I also found this blog while googling: Confederacy of Dunces, which is about New Orleans and Katrina.)

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