A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces is an American novel written by John Kennedy Toole; written in the late 1960’s but not published until 1980, Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981 posthumously for the novel, having committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. Toole suffered from depression, partly attributed to the original failure to have ‘Dunces’ published, which led to his untimely death. Knowing this prior to reading the book I found important, according to my limited research, parts of the novel are based loosely around Toole’s life. I also think that as I read the book I got a small insight of what Toole was like.

The book itself centres on the main character Ignatius J. Reilly – a gluttonous, lazy man who lives with his mother in New Orleans. Ignatius is quite a horrid character; he is a pompous liar that holds a self-belief that he is better than all those around him. He sneaks, cheats, lies and produces long ranting procrastinations in the form of letters and speeches throughout the book – I found him quite despicable and repulsive. Although Ignatius is an educated man and articulate with it, he fails to make any positive contribution to his own life and those that surround him. Unemployed or under-employed (by which I mean he has a job but doesn’t actually do any work) for the entire novel, he is scourge on humanity. Continually he leaves a trail of misdeed in his wake; other people then flounder in the misfortune Reilly has, often knowingly, placed upon them. I could find nothing to like about him… whatsoever!

The book itself follows Reilly and a number of different characters he interacts with over several weeks; although the novel has no overarching plot as such, it gives a view into the characters’ lives. Each character in A Confederacy of Dunces is colourful and brash, Toole brings these characters to life in his vivid description of them, but even more so in the way they talk and interact with each other. The language used by each person provides a strong image for the reader to latch on to; it also helps the reader keep up with conversations between characters as their own individual linguistic style pours out from the page. When I was reading, I felt that the phonetic writing conveyed the distinctive New Orleans dialect very well; Ignatius’s mother Irene and (Burma) Jones were just two characters, that through their unique dialogue, I instantly knew they were speaking and could almost hear their accents.

I enjoyed reading A Confederacy of Dunces, I thought it was very amusing in places and it entertained me. I did get to a point in the book where I it seemed to start dragging along and from that point, (reasonably near the end of the story), I just wanted it to finish. Although I didn’t like Ignatius, his actions and temperament amused me – the book and its characters are overtly funny and many sequences within the story are comically ludicrous. Although the book is seen as a picaresque novel, I can’t say that Ignatius is a likable rogue that you would expect from this genre. However, the novel is very satirical about Ignatius and his personality; nothing is ever his fault, but it oh so clearly is! ‘Dunces’ satirical reach doesn’t just stop at Reilly though – the full cast of characters are displayed and mocked for the reader’s enjoyment.

Although I enjoyed A Confederacy of Dunces, I don’t think I will ever revisit it. I also think that it is a bit of an acquired taste – I would imagine that some people would really despise this book. I would suggest that you try it, read the first 30 or 40 pages – if after this much you’re not that keen then maybe this book is not for you…

 

If you have read A Confederacy of Dunces you may like:

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
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