It’s taken 4 years since it was first recommended to me, but I finally got round to reading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I think the reason it took so long is that I’m one of those people who doesn’t respond well to recommendations, particularly with books, and the minute anything becomes a runaway or cult success (Cloud Atlas, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time etc), I react against it as if suffering from some sort of allergy, terrified I might find it over-hyped, or get caught up in the hype and lose all critical objectivity.
As such, A Confederacy of Dunces came to me with an intimidating pedigree. Recommended to me by people, including my partner and fellow writers, whose opinions I value, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is, by almost all accounts, an American classic.
For the uninitiated, Confederacy tells the story of 30-year-old Ignatius P. Reilly of New Orleans, a corpulent and flatulent behemoth who lives with his long-suffering mother, and when not sponging off her spends much of his time shouting at cinema screens, eating, farting, masturbating, farting and eating. Inspired by the 6th Century philosopher Boethius, Ignatius rages against what he sees as the decadence of modern culture, and in the course of the novel we meet the eccentrics who get caught up in Ignatius’s farcical attempts to turn even the most mundane of jobs into a revolutionary movement; first using his post as admin officer for a trouser manufacturer to stir up civil unrest among the black factory workers, then using his hotdog stand as the linchpin of an attempt to infiltrate the US Army and government with gay men.
Toole wrote the novel while serving in the United States Army in the early 1960s, and spent the remainder of his short life struggling fruitlessly to get it published before his suicide, at the age of 31, in 1969. It was Toole’s mother Thelma who took up the baton and spent the next 10 years sending her son’s manuscript to publishers, agents and authors, finally gaining the attention of Louisiana writer Walker Percy, who was instrumental in getting Confederacy published in 1980. It became a cult hit, and has enjoyed a loyal, committed fan base ever since. But what of the novel itself?
I should point out that before reading it last week, I’d made one other attempt, 2 or 3 years back, but gave up, finding it just too misanthropic. Friends had told me this was one of the funniest books I would ever read, but between the over-the-top dialogue and hyperactive slapstick I sensed a deep and bitter hatred, something angry and unpleasant, that overshadowed the comedy. As genuinely funny and broadly comic as Confederacy often is, knowing its author committed suicide in despair stained the comedy with something much more tragic.
Now that I’ve read the thing cover to cover, I’m unshaken in my belief that Confederacy is a tragic work. Tragic because of its situation – Ignatius is a parasitic and grotesque man-child who leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. But tragic too, because it feels unfinished. The story I often hear of its publication history is that here was a case in which those who read Toole’s novel before his death clearly got it all wrong. It’s a work of genius, and they were fools not to see it the first time around. If only they had recognised his talent while he was still alive etc…
My feeling is that each and every person who rejected Toole’s novel, as it stands, was right to do so. The tragedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is not that publishers failed to recognise its genius, but that the author didn’t live to work with an editor bossy and skillful enough to whip the thing into better shape. Instead what we have is a novel with many colourful and well-realised characters, funny situations and the occasional gem of dialogue, all-but-buried beneath mountains of meandering plot, needless repetition, and grindingly clumsy changes in point of view that make it feel more like a polished and very promising first draft than a finished novel.
If there was ever a book that challenges the whole Barthesian concept of the “Death of the Author” (i.e. the principle that we should separate a work completely from its author’s biography) it’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Here, it’s impossible to separate author and work. The work exists in its current state precisely because of its author’s depressive personality and his premature death. A less anxious, less depressive writer may have gone back to the drawing board and either reworked his unpublished novel or begun something else. An author less dead would have had the opportunity to do both.
Having said all this, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss A Confederacy of Dunces as something over-hyped, because there is still so much to love about it. The characters, as already mentioned, often leap off the page. The novel’s opening and climactic chapters are fine examples of prose farce, so much tauter and more finely tuned than its flabby midriff, proving that Toole was more than capable of disciplined and carefully-structured storytelling. It is a shame, then, that his death (and again, we have to keep coming back to it) all but ruled out anyone going in there and hauling out the padding; all those dialogues that go nowhere, or the supporting characters who feel sketchy and half-formed compared to so many of their co-stars.
As enjoyable as A Confederacy of Dunces undoubtedly is, it seems to me unlikely a novel in this state by a living but previously unpublished author would have seen publication; even more so that it would have won the Pulitzer. If we read A Confederacy of Dunces without bearing any of this in mind, we’re left with something very interesting and very funny but also very, very flawed.