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31st January
2011
written by Steph

"Oh my God!"

If The Catcher in the Rye is considered required reading for teens in high school, then I definitely think that A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole should be required reading for those at college and university. It’s not that Dunces’ central character (and some (where some = me) might argue, the titular character as well) is what Holden Caulfield would be at age 30, because truthfully there is only one Ignatius J. Reilly (and that’s a good thing)! But as I read through Dunces, I kept thinking that for all of its absurd twists and outlandish moments, there is a part of it that very much deals with being out in the real world and figuring out what to do with your time and yourself, and just making it through all of the bizarre curve balls life (or, as Ignatius would claim, Fortuna) has a way of throwing at you. According to the introduction that accompanied my edition of Dunces, Toole was unable to get the book published during his lifetime largely because the editors he sent it to felt that while it was amusing, it was largely pointless. With that in mind, it hardly seems appropriate (or possible) to provide one with a succinct synopsis of the novel. Essentially, the novel follows the outlandish exploits of Ignatius J. Reilly, a beast of a man with a vorpal tongue, who lumbers about the streets of New Orleans leaving destruction and chaos in his wake as he strives to secure and keep a job, much to his own chagrin. But really, this book is all about Ignatius. Larger than life, everything Ignatius comes in contact with becomes farcical and absurd and hilarity ensues. This wasn’t my first time reading this book—I read it back when I was a young teen, I believe—but I went into it not really remember anything about it. I did have this vague preconception that Ignatius was the hero of the novel, misunderstood by all those around him, the lone voice of wisdom in a sea of fools. Well, while Ignatius is certainly misunderstood by most of society, he certainly belongs to the confederacy to which the title refers. I mean, Ignatius is such a ponce and is ridiculous and in many ways it is like this is a novel without a hero because everyone in this novel is indeed pathetic and a dunce! Some may find this annoying and bothersome, but it’s already been well established on this site that I don’t need to like characters in a novel to enjoy the book. Certainly I wouldn’t want to know any of the people who make up this book in real life because they’re such fools, but their foolishness certainly makes for great entertainment within the scope of fiction. I am glad that Toole decided to use a narrative that switches from character to character, because I do think that spending an entire novel with just one of these people as a companion would be too much for any one person to handle (and even with the switches, the novel did sometimes feel like it dragged). I do love the way that the novel starts off with all the characters inhabiting the same city but not the same space, but over the course of the novel, they all collide into what is essentially one huge clusterfuck (as the French say). Overall, this is just one huge, ridiculous novel that is bursting at the seams with crazy. And yet the zaniness works; it adds to this sense that the story is so alive and I think Toole needs to be commended for making the story feel like it could bolt out from underneath him at any moment and become a huge mess, but of course it never does. It has momentum, it has narrative drive, and I kept wanting to know what could possibly happen next. It made me laugh—guffaw even!—and the writing is perfect in tone and, again, wonderfully absurd. Nearly everything out of Ignatius’ mouth made me want to laugh and/or cringe, and his invective-laced tirades are definitely snicker worthy. Since finishing the book, I keep proclaiming “Oh my God!” in an aghast tone of voice, since this was by far the phrase Ignatius himself exclaimed most often through the book, and the picturing him doing so always filled me with glee. Dunces is one of those madcap books that is so very rich and that I as a reader highly treasure. I feel like I discovered so much from it as I read through it this time, and I can only imagine what it will offer up when we meet again. As an aside, I must mention that it is just so sad that Toole ended his own life before he ever had the chance to see his book get published and attain the loyal and delighted readership it ultimately deserved. It did, after all, eventually go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  Such an insanely gifted writer, gone well before his time. I look forward to reading his only other published work, The Neon Bible, which Tony read and reviewed here. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

23 Comments

  1. 01/31/2011

    I listened to this book a few years ago and thought the narrator – Barrett Whitener – did a nice job. I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should sit down with the physical book one of these days.

  2. 01/31/2011

    Oh I am so glad to see this review!I love this book and it’s one of my very favorites of all time. Ignatius and his valve are way up there on my list of funniest things, and I also sometimes think of him Saying “Oh my God!” in that flabbergasted way that he always does. I also think it’s really quite sad that Toole ended up the way he did and that there is not more of his work out there to enjoy. I definitely agree that everyone should at least try this book, as it’s a really funny read. I also wouldn’t want to have to spend any serious time with Ignatius, but loved the time I spent reading about him. This was a fantastic review!

  3. 01/31/2011

    You have no idea how happy this review makes me – this is one of my favourite books, and yet so many people I’ve recommended it to over the years have hated it. It makes my day to find someone who enjoyed it too!

    I look forward to your thoughts on The Neon Bible. It doesn’t compare to this, but it’s pretty impressive if you consider how young he was when he wrote it.

  4. 01/31/2011

    I’m so happy to see you review this brilliant book! It is my favorite book of all time (well, this and Cat’s Cradle). I love Ignatius! And I loved your review of this book – makes me realize its time for another re-read of it. I’ve never read The Neon Bible, but perhaps its time to give that a go – and I’m looking forward to your thoughts on it. Also, I think its sad too, that Toole was not alive to see the success that this amazing story received. I just think its great that his mother was so persistent in getting it published – thanks to her we were able to enjoy such a wonderful book. Great post, Steph!!

  5. 02/01/2011

    @charley: I am torn about the idea of this book on audio – I think that a really great narrator could bring Ignatius to life in a wonderful way, but the plot is so wild, I worry I’d have a hard time keeping track of everything!
     
    @ zibilee: Sounds like we are really on the same wavelength on this one!
     
    @ Nymeth: Yes, I know some people who really just hate this book, which I don’t personally understand, but to each her own, I suppose.
     
    @ Nadia: It’s always nice to find out a fellow book lover sees the beauty in a book you also love! I really wish we had more than two books by Toole to enjoy…
     
    @ Erin: This is NOT totally random… it’s outlandish, but not nonsensical. There is a linear plot and all the bits wind up coming together. You don’t want to go skipping around because it’s not one of those books… It is picaresque in that Ignatius gets into various scrapes throughout but you need to read it one page after the other like most other books!
     
    @ Amanda: I really love Catch-22 and the two books have very similar vibes in my mind, so I think you will like this one a lot too when you re-read it. I’ll have to look into Babbitt, which I’d not heard of until your comment.
     
    @ Alex: New Orleans is frequently mentioned in the book and lots of Shenanigans occur down on Bourbon Street – it made me really want to visit!
     
    @ Jackie: I don’t think you’d be too old to appreciate the book as Ignatius is actually 30! All of the characters in the book are, for all extents and purposes, adults, so it’s certainly not a book that only has an appeal for a younger audience.

  6. 01/31/2011

    I tried to read this once and returned it to the library after a page or two. I wasn’t in the mood. I might be willing to try it again. Is it totally random, though? Like, Alice-in-Wonderland, nothing-makes-any-sense, you-could-skip-a-few-pages-and-it-wouldn’t-matter-because-the-story-didn’t-make-sense-in-the-first-place random? Because then I won’t like it. Madcap yes; random no.

  7. 01/31/2011

    In college, I took what was meant to be just a sophomore English class but the prof concentrated solely on satire the entire semester. We read this one alongside Babbitt, Catch-22, and others, as well as watching Dr. Strangelove. It was a strange class, and really the only book I took from it was Catch-22. This one and Babbitt have actually become fused in my mind, so I have no idea what each one was about, but vaguely remember both when described to me. I want to reread both now that I’m older and might understand them a bit better, especially as my sister read this a few years ago and has been pushing it on me ever since.

  8. 02/01/2011

    It’s been on my wishlist for ages, ever since I visited New Orleans in 2004. Does the city play a bit part in the book?

  9. I’ve had this on my shelf for ages. I really want to read it soon, but I worry I might already be too old for it. I hope to get to it later in the year and hope I enjoy it as much as you did.

  10. 02/01/2011

    I adore this book and reread it every so often. Ignatius J. Reilly really is one of a kind, and I can still remember my wonder at discovering such a character 🙂

  11. 02/02/2011

    Good review. I own this book, but haven’t read it yet. Maybe I’ll crack it open this year.

  12. 02/02/2011

    @ Bina: It was far too long since I had last read this one… I’ll not make that mistake again! Ignatius makes everything about my life seem better! 😉
     
    @ Eric: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book, Eric. I think you’d have a lot of wonderful insights and enjoy it a lot!

  13. 02/02/2011

    Very interesting — I’ve been told this novel is great, but I knew nothing about it! It sounds like a whole lot of fun, and I’ll have to put it on my list.

  14. 02/03/2011

    Ooh, glad to hear this! I started this book just before beginning school but was so sporadic with my reading time that I just couldn’t find a rhythm. I set it aside, but I hope to pick it up again this summer (I have ridiculously high hopes for my summer). It was funny, at least the part I read 🙂

  15. 02/08/2011

    @ Aarti: I think that this isn’t a book for a frazzled mind because it is so frenetic. It would be hard to keep up if you couldn’t focus on it or if your brain was tired! Good for the summer for sure!

  16. 02/17/2011

    This is such a famous title yet I have never read it! Since you rate it so highly, I must go and check it out at some point.

  17. 02/17/2011

    @ sakura: It’s a really fantastic read that I think gives a great idea of the vivacity that American literature can convey. Really wonderful, and I hope you do get around to it at some point!

  18. 02/22/2011

    Bursting full of crazy is dead on. I have a soft spot in my heart for Miss Trixie.

  19. 02/25/2011

    @ Claire: Yes, Miss Trixie was so awesome. I loved how ornery she was! Perhaps the least dunce-like of them all!

  20. […] Steph & Tony Investigate […]

  21. 10/17/2011

    Ignatius Reilly is definitely one of the best characters ever written. On one hand, he is mentally challenged, and quite possibly a psycopath. On the other, he is very well-educated, verboise fellow. In a very weird way, he is always able to convince other characters to always to do his bidding – at least, until they know him better. His ideas are absurd, demagogue and igniting. Recently, I was re-reading Bardbury’s “Fahrenheit” and was struck by how close this so popular and revered book seemed to Ignatius’ “ode agaisnt contemporary world” written on Big Chief tablets (http://www.vladimirkokorev.com/195)

    Not saying that Bradbury is anything like Ignatius, but just that people are prone to mistify the well-written (or spoken) absurdity and rarely stop to think about how little sense it makes.

  22. 10/20/2011

    @ Vladimir: Yes, there certainly is no one else out there like Ignatius. He’s one of a kind… which is probably a good thing! 😉

  23. 10/20/2011

    @ Steph: A friend of mine used to say that we all have a small Ignatius living inside… it’s just a mmatter of not letting him grow.

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