A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

23 June 2009
Chapters 1-5
This reminds me of a whole raft of other American comic novels – which is a fairly stupid place to start, since most of the ones I mean came after this one. Except, perhaps, Catch 22, another novel about the everyday stupidity of most of the people in it.

Start again. ‘Meet Ignatius J Reilly’ the blurb invites us, so we do. He’s a wonderful monster, a 30-year-old baby who’s never progressed beyond the oral stage or a baby’s egocentricity. He doesn’t realise this, of course, and thinks he’s a fully-formed adult. Other grotesqueries are his monstrous size, his monstrous hypochondria and his monstrous hypocrisy. He watches suggestive films so he can be disgusted and considers masturbation his ‘hobby’. He writes about how everything in the post-Mediaeval world is rubbish, and daily expects to be published. Obviously, we know better.

Other characters. There’s his mother, who is at last beginning to realise she might not have got his upbringing absolutely right. There’s Mancuso the hapless cop, Jones the ‘negro’ in his cloud of smoke, now employed in Lana’s bar for less than the minimum wage. This is a 60s novel, and the subject of equal rights is in the air. Lana ruthlessly exploits Jones, just as Levy’s Pants exploits a whole factory-load of black workers. There’s Myrna Minkoff from an earlier part of Ignatius‘ life, who we only find out about through a letter she writes to Ignatius and a description he gives in a soon-to-be-published diary. She sounds almost sensible – describing Ignatius’ faults perfectly – except she seems to think he‘s redeemable.

After about 50 pages I wondered whether it would go beyond, well, stuff just happening… and then Toole seems to have decided we were ready for some plot. Mrs Reilly starts to go out bowling with Mancuso and his Aunt, to Ignatius’ disgust – and Ignatius gets a job. So we get some more characters: Levy, who is as bad an employer as Lana and as selfish as Ignatius; Gonzales the office manager; Trixie the office worker at an advanced stage of dementia. Ignatius doesn’t do any work, obviously. He creates bits of decor based on Catholic iconography, puts all the filing he’s supposed to be doing into the bin, and writes offensive letters to the company’s customers. And he’s taken to wandering into the factory to stir up a bit of discontent – not with any kind of Civil Rights agenda, but because he likes to destroy anything he doesn’t like or that isn‘t for his own personal benefit. (Which is, for instance, why he lets down one of Mancuso‘s tyres as the cop sits in the kitchen talking to Mrs Reilly.) His attitude to the Blacks is at best patronising and at worst antediluvian – as I suppose we’d expect from someone whose attitudes are about five centuries out of date.

What do I think? Not sure yet. The humour is a bit broad for my taste, but it all rolls along happily. Ignatius’ writing is a neat pastiche of self-serving pomposity, and I like Jones, who never seems to quite know what’s going on, although he knows it’s probably a scam. Nobody can properly see Jones through the smoke, but that’s ok because he can’t see anybody through his shades. New Orleans is a freak-show where, if things work at all, they work with a sort of circus clown logic. (Mancuso’s boss, who sends him out with a different fancy dress every day, and the workings of the office at Levy’s Pants, are typical.) This is a world where someone like Ignatius can be given a job and be thought highly of – and I’m wondering if he’s going to end up as mayor. It’s as likely as anything else that’s happened so far.

At the end of Chapter 5, for no reason I can fathom yet, we’ve just met a university teacher called Talc. His knowledge of his field is comically inadequate and his working practices are as bad as Ignatius’ were when he briefly had a university job. And in a pile of ancient and unmarked scripts he finds a diatribe against him by – guess who.

4 July
Chapters 6-10
It’s not as chaotic as it looks. I’m exactly two-thirds of the way through, and the second of Ignatius’ bids for political recognition is about to start. The first – the failed take-over at Levy’s Pants – was exactly one third of the way through, and this one looks even less promising. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

It’s a bit of a meander. We haven’t met anybody new – so the little world of New Orleans makes The Simpsons’ Springfield seem the size of New York. We follow four or five threads, none of them going in particularly surprising directions, some of them meeting and intertwining from time to time. Ignatius gets fired, but eventually becomes a weenie vendor. The thorn in his psyche is Myrna, who continues to write to let him know about her activism and to remind him of what a slob he is. She sounds no more sorted out than he is, but her letters are enough to spur Iggy into action through sheer rage. She doesn’t understand him at all, but then nor does anybody else: whatever he does, people just don’t get it – but they think they do, which is where a lot of the comedy comes from. For instance the outrageous gay Dorian thinks his pirate costume is a sign of some sort of solidarity, and between them they come up with the idea of a party. The comedy here is based on their different understandings of what a party might entail….

Mrs Reilly continues to seek middle-aged solace through Mancuso’s auntie and the bloke she’s lining up for her – who turns out to be the reactionary old man she got arrested in Iggy’s place at the start of the novel. How we laughed. Jones continues to be exploited at the Night of Joy bar – but he’s definitely on to something when he suspects Lana and the young George of some kind of dealing scam. In a short episode labelled Plot he writes the address of the bar on the packages she’s hiding…. (The other thread in the bar is Darlene’s faux ingénue strip act with her pet parrot. More clown reality.)

And Mancuso winds his way in and out. It looks as if Toole’s got him heading towards the arrest at the Night of Joy that will save his career: two weeks his boss has given him. The gays love winding him up and are happy he’s back on their patch following his predictable lack of success in the bus station toilets. Er…. There’s Talc again, for another three or four-page mini-thread. Some woman student is just beginning to make his life difficult.. And oh yeh, there’s Levy and his monstrous wife and (allegedly) monstrous daughters. They’re not terribly hilarious – but then, how hilarious is any of it? It’s easy to read, but hardly unputdownable. It’s like one of those sitcoms where you watch the first episode and you can see straight away where it‘s going – and whether you want to bother with the whole series. I wouldn’t have.

7 July
Chapter 11 to the end
I’m glad that’s over. As with the middle third of the novel, nothing surprising happens in the last third. But that’s the nature of sitcoms: they’re not about character development, just the farcical scrapes characters get themselves into. The night of what Iggy thinks is a political rally – which segues seamlessly into his highly publicised night of shame – is one of the novel’s major set pieces. We get the gay scene and the lowlife underbelly – what a different Iggy calls the city’s ripped backside – and… and what? Mancuso gets his arrest, Jones gets his revenge, and Iggy is shown up for a buffoon. Again. Nothing surprising, nothing you wouldn’t guess. And you get pages of screaming queens and über-butch lesbians for good measure: cutting-edge satire it ain’t.

Then, after 300-odd pages of wandering, Toole really loses his way. For some reason he decides to tie up just about all the loose ends. Mancuso gets the recognition that nothing in the novel so far has suggested he deserves. Jones, having done the right thing, has no job – but is to be given one by Gus Levy, who has suddenly discovered entrepreneurship and assertiveness. (Another side-effect is that his monster of a wife gets what’s coming to her, and not in a good way. And Trixie gets her retirement and a new set of teeth.) Only Talc is left simmering: we never do find out if he gets into any real trouble.

And so on. But what’s to happen in the Reilly madhouse, with Iggy indulging his hobby to the extent that he‘s practically worn out the rubber glove and his mother only wanting a quiet life with the man whose pension she wants to marry? Cue final set piece. As Mrs R calls for the men in white coats (this is the way things operate in Toole-land, apparently) and their ambulance speeds to pick up the madman – he speeds, slowly, in the opposite direction. Myrna has fairy-godmothered him out of there and, as I said, I’m glad it’s over.

We might assume that the novel‘s title refers to Iggy‘s world-view: like the epigraphs in his journal it’s a quotation that demonstrates his misplaced arrogance…. But this New Orleans really is full of dunces, like Springfield or South Park or wherever Family Guy lives. And unlike them it doesn’t have a sensible woman somehow managing to hold it together: all the women in this story are stupid, self-serving or senile. Not exactly hot on the rights of women then. Or gays. Or Blacks. Toole mocks, say, Iggy’s paternalistic racism or Myrna’s homophobia – she’s terrified that Iggy might turn out gay – but, for a novel written in the 60s, his presentation of women and minorities is at the level of a Carry On film or Are You Being Served?

There are good things in this novel, particularly the way Toole pastiches voices – Iggy‘s written style, Jones‘s New Orleans speech patterns – but, well, once you’ve read Chapter 1 you’ve kind of got all of it, including most of the main characters. So what are the next 400 pages for, exactly?

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