Comedy or Tragedy?: A Confederacy of Dunces

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A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole

Reading Challenges: 20 In Your 20s

 

Have you ever read a book you either could not finish or had difficulty understanding? Up until the past month, the only book (besides school readings) that I did not enjoy or “get” was Jane Eyre. If you were to ask me why I do not like Jane Eyre, I couldn’t tell you. I tried three times to read that book and I was never successful.

Last month, I picked up A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Toole’s work became my next read for two reasons – my boyfriend suggested it and my father included a sweet note when gifting me the book for my birthday.

“I read this many years ago. I think it was on the recommendation of M–. Love, Dad.”

Many had told me it would be a funny read – a thought supported by the reviews on the book’s back cover. Yet, I found very little in A Confederacy of Dunces funny. Everything was sad and disgusting. Each character, most of whom I enjoyed, experienced comic tragedy at which I could not laugh. From financial turmoil to racism to complete delusion and slovenly behavior, A Confederacy of Dunces left me sad and disturbed.

Walker Percy, the author of the forward, expresses my sentiment perfectly when discussing the main character, Ignatius Reilly, who is disgusting, irritating, and disturbing.Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 10.22.25 AM

“Here at any rate is Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of — slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age, lying in his flannel nightshirt, in a back bedroom on Constantinople Street in New Orleans, who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective.”

After an exceptional synopsis of A Confederacy of Dunces in the forward, Percy explains his hesitance to call the book comedy as it is a term that “implies simply a funny book.” He goes on to call A Confederacy of Dunces a “rumbling farce” and acknowledges the underlying sadness of the book. Yet, Percy attributes the sadness to the tragedy of Ignatius and others and to the heartbreaking circumstances of the author’s death – suicide at age thirty-two.

John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I admit that what I interpret as sadness and disgust, may have been pity for the characters. This would be a pity stemming from a hidden, unacknowledged sense of superiority. I am better than the sloven, somewhat delusional, and neurotic Ignatius. Though at times I found myself in line with the sentiments of certain characters; how dare Ignatius treat his mother so horribly! Whether it was a superiority complex, pity or true gloom and disgust, I found very little comedic about A Confederacy of Dunces.

Maybe my inability to “get” the humor of the book results from a generational gap. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with life in New Orleans during the 1960s stymies me from understanding the full inspiration behind the book. Or maybe my sense of humor makes it difficult for me to enjoy the particular style of comic farce that is A Confederacy of Dunces.

In spite of my difficulty grasping the meaning of A Confederacy of Dunces, there are many aspects of the book I enjoyed. For one, the dialogue is superb! Toole magically captured the idiosyncrasies of a New Orleans accent without making it difficult to read. Each character speaks in their distinct tone, accent, and style. Ignatius speaks as properly as possible and Darlene’s southern twang hints at the possibility of a demure, Southern belle. Toole expresses the New Orleans language in writing through the elimination of choice words such as “have” in the phrase “I been talking,” improper conjugation of verbs (“you was” instead of “you were”), phonetic spelling (“coulda” and “ax” for “ask”) and the repetitive use of Southern vocabulary.

I also enjoyed Toole’s depiction of 1960s New Orleans. Having visited the city a couple of times, and once in recent memory, the descriptions of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street are vivid. Additionally, Toole captures the beauty of New Orleans in a passage about St. Charles Avenue.

“The ancient oaks of St. Charles Avenue arched over the avenue like a canopy shielding him from the mild winter sun that splashed and sparkled on the chrome of the motorcycle.”

Between the language and the landscape, John Kennedy Toole superbly captured his home of New Orleans for the reader.

While I may not “get” A Confederacy of Dunces and all its comic glory, this is a book and a story that can never be replicated by another author. It is a necessity to read the forward by Walker Percy to comprehend the unique nature of Toole’s creation. From a detestable main character to a captivating narrative, Toole created a piece of work that, in the words of The Baltimore Sun, “is destined to become a classic.”

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

3 thoughts on “Comedy or Tragedy?: A Confederacy of Dunces

  • May 21, 2013 at 7:41 am
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    Another “sweet note” from your father or, rather a confession: I never could finish Dunces as I was repulsed by the protagonist. Having lived and studied in NO, I did particularly enjoy how Toole verbally painted picturesque scenes of the Crescent City. Incidentally, all native New Orleanians say “ax” (ask).

    Reply
  • May 21, 2013 at 7:41 am
    Permalink

    Another “sweet note” from your father or, rather a confession: I never could finish Dunces as I was repulsed by the protagonist. Having lived and studied in NO, I did particularly enjoy how Toole verbally painted picturesque scenes of the Crescent City. Incidentally, all native New Orleanians say “ax” (ask).

    Reply
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