Wait, that’s not a meme-
And this isn’t one of those reviews. Shut up.
So I can’t do the snark on this one. And I can’t review it the way one would normally review a book. With any work of art, the audience is their own effect; the resonance of a particular work within its time and place shapes the experience of that work, shapes its reach. As argued at length earlier this week, people care about the bombing of Dresden without even knowing about the bombing of Hamburg because Kurt Vonnegut was there, and wrote about it.
A Confederacy of Dunces is an unusual book in that it was the first and last adult work of a man who gave up on its publication and committed suicide five years later. It was published posthumously because his mother hounded a literary figure into reading it. Thus, despite describing the New Orleans of 1963, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
I am an unusual audience member in that my introduction of A Confederacy of Dunces was that of an author whose first adult work was currently pointed towards publishing. CoD is often used as an example of how the experts are always wrong and perseverance is the watchword for publishing. 22 publishers rejected Stephen King’s Carrie. 12 rejected Harry Potter. None rejected Twilight so what do they know about quality? And so on.
I was conscious that I was reading the magnum opus of a failed dead man. And I was conscious that the literary world flagellated itself with remorse fifteen years later. And I’m an optimist, and CoD is a deeply pessimistic book. But more than that. It’s…
flagamuffin is our resident expert on rationalist fiction, wherein the motivations of characters must be the motivations of real people responding in real ways to real situations. CoD is not that. A Clockwork Orange is a work in which the motivations of characters are the meanest, basest possible; Burgess wrote a quick’n’dirty study of cynicism in order to discuss altruism. Brett Easton Ellis generally writes works in which the motivations of characters are generally the most selfish; one gets an interesting (if difficult) perspective on humanity as a consequence.
A Confederacy of Dunces is the most literally-titled book I have ever read: it is a work of fiction in which every character must act and react in the most unthinkingly stupid manner in every situation.
It’s a beautiful and terrible thing to behold. Every character we meet is the worst possible stereotype of that character, and acts in the worst stereotypical manner. Ninety percent of CoD is a Faberge egg of idiocy, whereby the thoughtless actions of one person propel the story through the thoughtless actions of other people to reach the thoughtless climax of the thoughtless plot in a near-tesseract of mean stupidity. And it’s amazing. If you read it from a critical standpoint, it’s like listening to a virtuoso violin player deliver a composition of Shepard tones. It’s a baroque painting created entirely in red. It’s something you would never, ever consider attempting, but there you are, beholding it, and it’s just gobsmackingly impressive.
But again, I was conscious that I was reading the magnum opus of a failed dead man. And you can’t follow the exploits of Ignatius Reilly for too many pages without wanting to know a little bit about Ken Toole. Who worked at a pants factory much like the Levy Pants that briefly employed Reilly. Who had an over-protective mother much like Irene. Who sold hot dogs in the French Quarter just like Reilly. Who had many characteristics that were the opposite of his protagonist, but who had a lot in common, too.
I became conscious that I was reading the self-flagellation of a brilliant man that hated himself.
It’s a tough read. It’s a powerful read. It’s a beautiful read. I’m glad I did it. I hope I don’t have to again. I’m an optimist, all appearances to the contrary, and it would FUCK ME UP to create Toole’s world. I would be outright miserable if I had to create A Confederacy of Dunces. And then…
So CoD was mostly written in 1962 while Ken Toole was deployed to Puerto Rico. His father grew demented and Toole was granted a hardship discharge to return to his parents’ house, where he helped care for his father and pay for his family. Then Kennedy was shot and Toole grew depressed and started drinking and didn’t finish the book for another year.
And you can tell exactly where he stopped. The book goes from an intricate dance of ill behavior to “let’s wrap this up.” I was annoyed that Ken Toole finished his book by having all his principal characters try to do the right thing… until I realized that in every case, “the right thing” had been that task or idea that they had violently hated and avoided for the entire book, and in every case, they hated it just as much they just chose to do it anyway. A Confederacy of Dunces is about people who stand on principle against all good judgement, but ends with those people losing even their principles.
It’s fuckin’ rough.
And Ken Toole sent it out. He sent it to Robert Gottlieb, the guy who convinced Joseph Heller to finish Catch-22. And Gottlieb told Ken Toole he was brilliant, told him CoD was an amazing book but that ultimately,
- …with all its wonderfulnesses, the book—even better plotted (and still better plotable)—does not have a reason; it's a brilliant exercise in invention, but unlike CATCH 22 and MOTHER KISSES and V and the others, it isn'treally about anything. And that's something no one can do anything about.
And he’s right. It’s an amazing exercise but it’s Sheperd tones. It’s shredding scales on a Strat instead of playing a melody. It’s an exquisite gem of intricate meanness, but it doesn’t entertain, exactly. In 1964, Robert Gottlieb pinned the problem of CoD exactly, and despite
- Gottlieb wrote him an encouraging letter, in which he stated again that he felt Toole was very talented (even more so than himself) and that if Toole were to re-submit the manuscript he would continue to "read, reread, edit, perhaps publish, generally cope, until you are fed up with me. What more can I say?”
Toole felt that
- he could not give up on the book since he wrote the novel largely from personal observation and because the characters were based on real people he had seen in his life.
And there it sat, for five years, until Ken Toole sucked a tailpipe.
So this was a hard one for me. The myth: no one recognized the brilliance of Ken Toole. The reality: GIANTS of the industry recognized the brilliance of Ken Toole, but he couldn’t let go enough of his construct to follow their advice. The myth: editors are usually idiots and should be circumvented. The reality: the problems that prevented CoD from being published in Ken Toole’s lifetime are the problems that are likely to have it forgotten in ours.
I wonder if Ken Toole would still be alive if he hadn’t written a self-loathing book about himself. I wonder if he saw the need to revise his work as a challenge to his sense of self. I wonder a lot of things about this book, and I wonder a lot of things because of this book. It was certainly a powerful, introspective experience for me in ways few things have been.
Can you, like, NOT talk about yourself all the time?
I didn’t say you could speak.
There you go again, “I.”
Not sure. Right now I’m busy being disgusted by The Four Hour Work Week.