02 November 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

I arrive at beginning this review feeling conflicted. Not, it must be stressed, as to the quality of the novel, but rather at how one goes about reviewing a book so transcendentally... loud.

Mmm, that's right, LOUD is the word I have come up with to describe John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I toyed with 'brilliant', contemplated 'glorious torrent of cynical social commentary', seriously considered 'rich in passion, laid on thickly with Toole's impressive voice, seasoned with insight and spiced with humour; the book is obese with ambition and serves up a literary dish fit for a king.'

However, I settled on 'loud'.

What other adjective should one use when talking about a book that shouts its revolted social commentary at such decibels? When our hero can be spotted from a satellite, not only because of his size but also because of the voluminous white hot dog vendor smock he wears, surely the best word for him is 'loud'? When the mention of Ignatius J. Reilly inspires giggles and nervous tension in the same breath; when each of the supporting cast beats me over the head with their incessant bleatings that serve to brand every one of them on my memory indelibly... that's BLOODY LOUD.

A Confederacy of Dunces is about nothing and because of that, it is about everything. You know those books that have a hook- making them easy to sell to the undiscerning buyer. "It's about a salmon fishing project in the Yemen. I know right? HAHAHAHAHAHA. That's $22.95." Alternatively: "It's not girly! I mean, I know the cover is hot pink, but it's a retelling of A Room with a View! Obviously you've read that, right? Would you call E.M Forster chick-lit? WOULD YOU? Exactly. That's $22.95".

If I tried to sell A Confederacy of Dunces, I would revert to one tactic and one tactic only: "New Orleans in the 1960s. An obese hot dog vendor with three University degrees and an inflated vocabulary. A crumbling pants factory whose employees are drunk/ancient or delusional. A seedy nightclub whose owner distributes pornography to orphans. TRUST ME."

The novel, in my opinion, is made even more compelling with the foreword written by Walker Percy. He explains that Toole's mother contacted him in 1976 with this manuscript. Her son had killed himself and left it behind and she was determined to get it published. Who was this young man who wrote such a masterpiece? I can't help feeling that many of Ignatius' thoughts on the human condition and the depravity of society are mirrors of what Toole himself may have been thinking, caught in a web of depression that would ultimately end his life. At times Ignatius exhibits an obstructed self-hatred; when denying a customer a hot dog he asks- "Are you unnatural enough to want a hot dog this early in the afternoon?" ignoring the fact he has just consumed three himself. (I know this is not an overly obvious example of self-hatred, there are others, but this was the only one I could find. It's a big book!) It saddens me to think of Toole, perhaps subsumed with self-hatred, churning out the pages of Dunces in an attempt to expurgate and externalise the self-scorn he contained within.

On a slightly removed yet still related note, it's great to meet a new friend who enjoys reading, even more so to discover said friend is not a moron and has seriously stellar taste in literature. I'm always a bit wary when people start recommending books to me. My default position is that I know more about books than most people and if you're recommending a book to me I've never read then it probably isn't any good and I've skipped it for a reason. This new friend, having talked up Toole's novel, has now been elevated to position of a Person Whose Recommendations I Can Trust. Which is always nice in these uncertain times.

Rating: 10/10.
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