Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

It seems A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a love-it-or-hate-it book, but I feel mixed. My visceral reaction was pretty strongly negative, but there are some things worth appreciating, such as an I-am-very-smart character portrayal that was 50 years ahead of its time. Ignatius can be read as the embodiment of everything that is awful about intellectuals and literary types, and he is relevant today to the extent that many of us could probably benefit from some self awareness and humility when we find ourselves pulling out that soap box. There’s also an undeniable eloquence to Toole’s writing, especially with regard to the often cartoonishly grandiose dialogue.

However, counterpoints: A Confederacy of Dunces would be a far more heartbreaking story if the main character (any of the characters, really) were at all sympathetic. Ignatius J. Reilly is kind of like J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye if he were a villain. What makes Wimpy endearing is he’s harmless to our hero. However, time after time, Ignatius legitimately hurts people, and his only true motivation seems to be he delights in asserting his intellectual dominance.

Instead of taking Ignatius through a journey toward growth and change, Toole tries to convince the reader Ignatius is a victim, but I just couldn’t buy it. He’s a bad person because he makes bad choices, not because his mom was a bad mom and people made fun of him for being fat. Toole also tries to convince the reader he’s some kind of hero because, as it happens, his lies and cowardice yield solutions to the problems his lies and cowardice create. There is no property by which Ignatius’ actions or behavior are dismissed or forgivable. He’s awful, and it’s hard to spend 400 pages with him and feel anything but repulsion and maybe a touch of pity.

As the dialogue goes, it often reads like stage actors delivering monologues, a treatment that just doesn’t age well. Ignatius’ speeches often aren’t too far removed from Shakespeare, but they’re of the hateful variety. There’s no beauty in the character at all.

A Confederacy of Dunces is billed as a comedy, but I just didn’t find it funny. Ignatius clearly has some undiagnosed mental conditions, a point the novel is disturbingly casual with. I found much of the intended comedy to be offensive, cultural progression after the times notwithstanding. Considering the eccentricity of the characters, I might describe it as Arrested Development 50 years too soon, but the situational comedy just isn’t laughable at even the base level. Strangely for a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, there are many attempts to elicit laughs with Ignatius’ gastric distress, but the book is shy about it. Ignatius burps all over the place and at really unfortunate times, but he never once farts. I guess that would have been crossing a line into obscenity?

What I’m saying is it’s basically fart jokes, which is strange to see in such a highly regarded novel. The novel also attempts to make light of other taboo-at-the-time, dirty-humor topics, such as masturbation. Again, it’s just not funny.

Furthermore, the novel showcases a bunch of technical deficiencies, which would be fine in a novel that didn’t win a Pulitzer. For instance, perspective changes are abrupt and jarring. Dialogue runs on for pages without any kind of break from the talking heads. Nobody really changes by the end, and throughout, nobody really makes any kind of decision to affect the outcome of the story. There isn’t really a discernible point to the narrative.

I think part of my problem with this book is it’s just not my thing, but I also think it has very significant problems. It certainly offers some value, but I can’t understand why it’s so highly regarded. There’s nothing very meaningful, it wasn’t funny, and I didn’t enjoy it. However, many people clearly find meaning, comedy, and enjoyment. I just found too many liabilities to regard it as anything more than mediocre.