Archive | May, 2013

Death of the Author – ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole

11 May

Ignatius P. Reilly

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.

"So... Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?"

“So… Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?”

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 attempt2 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…

"Also... Why is there no justice in this world?"

“Also… Why is there no justice in this world?”

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.

Harsh, but true.

Harsh, but true.

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 nowhereor 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.

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Why Aren’t We More Excited By Flying?

1 May

This time tomorrow I’ll be on a plane, roughly 30,000 feet above somewhere in Europe. My destination is the Greek island of Kos, where I intend to do nothing but read, eat, drink, sleep and possibly snorkel in fairly shallow water (not a great swimmer) for seven days.

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

The holiday was sprung on me by good friends who were going as a party of six until one person dropped out. “Seven days,” they said. “Gorgeous weather. All inclusive. All you’ll have to pay for are the admin fees to change the booking over to your name.”

Incredibly, I had to give it some thought. Granted, it was about 90 seconds’ worth of thought which culminated in my boyfriend saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Go.” Anyway, the long and the short of it is that less than three weeks later I’m going to Greece.

Flying was something I didn’t do until fairly late in life. When I was growing up we never had much money, and couldn’t dream of going on a foreign holiday, and when I was able to go abroad with my school that was always on a rather smelly bus full of people snogging or vomiting up a vile slurry of Tizer and Refreshers before we’d reached the Bryn Glas tunnels. The first time I ever flew was in 2003, when I was 25 years old.

Me in 2003. And no, contrary to what this photo may suggest, "flying" in this context is not a euphemism for tripping my nuts off.

Me in 2003. And no, contrary to what this photo may suggest, “flying” in this context is not a euphemism for tripping my nuts off.

I loved it almost immediately. Though it was a night flight, we passed over thunderstorms above France, and if you think lightning looks impressive from the ground, you should see it from up there. Truly spectacular. I’d been a little apprehensive before we flew, worrying that turbulence would be the most terrifying experience I had ever had, and once we’d landed my friends (who had been spread out over several rows) confirmed it was the single worst flight they had ever been on. During one particularly bumpy interlude the woman across the aisle from me began clutching her rosary and praying in Spanish. And I loved every second of it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m unaware of the perils, or that it doesn’t bother me. When flying, the possibility of the plane exploding in mid-air or nose-diving into a mountain are pretty much all I can think about. But overriding all that is a single thought:

“I AM FUCKING FLYING.”

"I'm fucking flying, Jack!" "Er... potty mouth?"

“I’m fucking flying, Jack!”
“Er… potty mouth?”

The funny thing is, airports and the whole experience of flying seem designed to take your mind of that simple fact, or to downplay it. Airports do their damnedest to make flying the dullest thing you can do. Entering an airport should feel like walking into Disneyland. There should be aviation-themed musical numbers, and Brian Blessed over a Tanoy bellowing, “GREETINGS, TRAVELLER! PREPARE TO GO JETTING INTO THE STRATOSPHERE!”

Dressed like this. Obviously.

Dressed like this. Obviously.

When boarding the plane they should fill the cabin with the theme from 633 Squadronand the cabin crew should hand everyone flying goggles and a leather cap, even though technically you won’t need them. After the safety messages the captain should shout, “CHOCKS AWAY!” or “AND… WE… HAVE… LIFT-OFF!”

At the very least, your fellow passengers should behave as if they would really appreciate all of these things, and not as if they are sitting on a bus.

Oh, I’ve tried doing the whole “blase frequent flyer” act, settling down in seconds, reading a newspaper or magazine during take-off, but it’s no use. I’m not reading a word. I’m looking out of the little window and thinking, “I’M FLYING. I AM FUCKING FLYING.”

And yet whenever I think that (and I think it almost every time I fly), I feel like I’m quite alone. Everyone else looks bored, scared, claustrophobic, or like they wish they’d had a piss before boarding because they’re not quite sure if they can hold it in until the seat-belt lights go off.

All flights should be a bit like this.

All flights should be a bit like this.

Flying home from New York in 2009 we came in to land at Heathrow at around 7am on a cloudy September day. The sun was just coming up, and the clouds were incredible. It was how I imagine it might feel to fly through the canyons of Mars; vast, otherworldly, and breathtakingly beautiful; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And yet, looking around the plane, all I saw were tired and restless faces. People checking their watches, yawning, rolling their eyes.

I wanted to get up and yell, “People, what is wrong with you? We are flying. Look! Look out there! Those are clouds! We are flying in and out of actual fucking clouds!” But I realised that would at the very least result in an air marshal’s taser to the neck, and thought better of it.

"Express your enthusiasm. I double dare you, motherfucker."

“Express your enthusiasm. I double dare you, motherfucker.”

Perhaps the reason most passengers don’t share my enthusiasm is that to think too hard about what they’re actually doing (i.e. cruising at a couple of hundred miles an hour, 8 or 9 miles above the surface of the earth) is terrifying to them. Better to think of the plane as a bus, and the journey as one long and tedious commute. Better for airports to resemble nothing so much as bloated shopping malls peppered with Burger Kings and Garfunkels, and an opportunity to stock up on cheap vodka, fags and perfume. Make the act of flying (of fucking FLYING) just the same as any other journey, and it becomes less scary.

I can only imagine, when we are finally jetting off to distant worlds, that spaceports will be modelled on Swindon town centre or Newport bus station.

"The next service to arrive at Terminal 3 will be the 14:36 service to the Moons of Saturn. Calling at Mars, Phobos, Deimos..."

“The next service to arrive at Terminal 3 will be the 14:36 service to the Moons of Saturn. Calling at Mars, Phobos, Deimos…” (Photo: Welshpete via Flickr.)