There’s an episode of the show 30 Rock in which Tracy Morgan’s character hopes to win a Golden Globe for his new movie Hard to Watch. The title of the fictional movie is poking fun at the lamentable fact that many of the movies that win today’s most prestigious awards are painful experiences for viewers. The difficulty or impossibility of enjoying these hard-to-watch movies seems to be taken as evidence of their artistic merit. This seems to be precisely wrong: the best art should be joyful, should make us happy, and should be easy to watch even if hard to fully understand or appreciate.
The situation with books is not too different. We might imagine that if Tracy Morgan hoped to win prestigious prizes for writing, he would write a book called Hard to Read, or Painful to Read, or (most damning of all) Really Boring to Read. Many of today’s acclaimed literary masterpieces are misanthropic, dense, bizarre, or otherwise unpleasant for normal readers. Strangely enough, these painful books are often at the top of bestseller lists because of middlebrow readers who want to keep up with the latest award-winning literature. Doctor Johnson said that what is written without pain is rarely read with pleasure. Today, what is read without pain is rarely awarded with treasure.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a happy exception to this rule. Highly acclaimed for its literary merit, it is nevertheless fun to read even for dunces like me. One of its chief sources of strength is its vivid and highly original characters. Ignatius J. Reilly is the protagonist, though not the hero – the book really has no hero with a possible exception in the last few pages. Ignatius is erudite, selfish, idealistic, obese, Oedipal, arrogant, eccentric, and obstinate, and he is the greatest achievement of the book.
Ignatius regards himself as a misunderstood genius, and the book’s title refers to a Jonathan Swift quote to the effect that the sign of a true genius is that the world’s dunces are in confederacy against him. Ignatius encounters a great deal of opposition to his schemes from others, both independently and in confederacy, and probably interprets this opposition as a sign of his genius. Really, though, it is only a sign of his folly, and a sign of how destructive and reckless his misadventures are.
The book is a chronicle of a series of misadventures that Ignatius undertakes with unfailingly disastrous results. These misadventures range from simply getting a job, to unionizing a factory workforce and leading an attempted violent demonstration, to writing abrasive letters to his sometime girlfriend, to attempting to turn a gay bacchanalia into a political movement. Along the way, he is a great burden to his mother, who eventually tries to have him committed to an asylum. He encounters many colorful New Orleans characters, including an aspiring exotic dancer, a barmaid who runs a shady pornography scheme, a young black man sometimes on the wrong side of the law, a hot dog mogul, a pants mogul, a persecuted beat cop, and a few others besides.
The most enjoyable part of the book is the humor. John Kennedy Toole, the author, not only created wonderfully original characters and put them into comical madcap situations, but he also had a way with phrasing even the simplest things that could make a person laugh. One of my favorites is in the third sentence, where we read that Ignatius’s lips “at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.” This technique of applying one word (filled) to two objects (disapproval and crumbs) but requiring a different interpretation (literal and figurative) for each, is called zeugma or semantic syllepsis, and when used right can be funny. I enjoyed another example of zeugma later in the book, when we read about the hot dog mogul that “Mr. Clyde and the cauldron bubbled and boiled.”
People say that an author’s first novel is usually just a thinly veiled autobiography. Confederacy is Toole’s first novel, and there are certainly some recognizable autobiographical elements. Of course the novel is set in Toole’s hometown, New Orleans. Ignatius is an erudite aspiring writer, as was Toole. Ignatius and Toole were both extremely close to their respective overprotective mothers. They also had some employment history in common.
But if the possibility of the novel being highly autobiographical is really a sad one if one looks closer. Ignatius is enormously obese, for example. Toole may have been a little hefty, but if he saw Ignatius as his doppelganger, he must have had serious body image issues. Ignatius has unhealthy and fraught relationships with women, and there is some evidence that Toole did as well, though again it is unlikely that he was the monster he describes Ignatius being. Ignatius suffers from paranoia, and Toole may have as well. Ignatius fancied himself a writer but is lazy and totally unproductive. Toole wrote Confederacy and some other works during his life, but never lived to see them published; one wonders whether he thought of himself as lazy or unproductive as well.
Taken together, the character flaws of Ignatius make him a thoroughly unattractive character, albeit a funny one. If Toole felt that that he resembled Ignatius, we might be able to laugh it off as self-deprecating humor. However, there is more to the story: Toole killed himself at age 31, for reasons that are unclear. The hilarity of reading about Ignatius and his world will always be tinged with the sad circumstances of the author’s life. It seems to me that Toole loathed himself for being like Ignatius. The problems that Ignatius causes are solved at the end of the book when his girlfriend Myrna comes out of nowhere to save him and drive him away from his problems, off into the sunset as it were. Toole evidently had no Myrna to save him, and saw death as his only escape from his pain. I only hope that Toole knows somehow that the book which reflects some of his deep psychological pain has helped to assuage the pain of me and countless other readers over the years.