“Oh, my God!” A Confederacy of Dunces and the Tragedy of John Kennedy Toole

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The tale of John Kennedy Toole is a tragic one. A definite master of the English language, but not recognized for it in his time. His writing was respected, but not enough to merit publishing. Suffering from severe depression, in part from his own perceived failure as a writer, he committed suicide at age 31.

Now that we are past that wonderfully cheerful and uplifting tale, let’s move on to what happened with Toole’s work posthumously. His mother found the manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces and immediately began to search for a publisher. After a few rejections, she was finally able to get a publisher to look at it. The work was published in 1980; eleven years after Toole’s death. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a renowned comedy. So naturally I expected a minimum of seventeen “lols” to be contained within it’s 394 pages. The story begins with a description of its antagonist and main character, Ignatius Reilly. But do not simply think we have a classic villain in this story. No, no, no. Ignatius Reilly is the villain who does not know that he is the bad guy. The novel’s title is taken from a Jonathan Swift quote, “When a genius appears, you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” Ignatius Reilly is this supposed genius, and every other character in the book is yet another dunce who is plotting against him.

Ignatius is morbidly obese, reeks of body odor, wears the same clothes every day for their comfort, and is genuinely rude to every person he comes into contact with. This is in stark contrast to his mother, who wants to dress well, live in a proper way, and be genuinely nice to people.

The story flows as such: Ignatius and his mother come into contact with people, those people love his mother and despise Ignatius, Ignatius does his best to improve someone’s life, thereby almost ruining it, and Ignatius’ mother grows skeptical of her own love for her son. This is my biggest issue with A Confederacy of Dunces. It, at points, is tiringly repetitive. But this does not ruin the book. The experiences that Ignatius has in New Orleans are hilarious and the book is packed with satire, with some jokes requiring a fair amount of knowledge of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology to understand. The journal Ignatius keeps, which is revealed at the end of most chapters is loaded with prodigious amounts of what I would term inside jokes.

These journals also lead me to reinforce this about Toole: He was a master of the English language. His ability to write Ignatius into a vast sea of characters is mesmerizing and a joy to read. The last 175 pages are impossible to stop reading as you desperately want to know what happens to all of the characters that you have grow attached to. All of the characters… except Ignatius. It is a credit to Toole that I despised Ignatius Reilly. In the vast array of characters that Toole offers his readers, Ignatius was the one I wanted to see fail. Perhaps more accurately, I wanted Ignatius to undergo a change. I won’t spoil things, but you can make up your own mind as to whether he does or not. My final word is simply this: You can smell Ignatius through the pages.

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Recommended to: Those who make time in their lives to partake in an extreme dislike of someone who is very much a fictional character, those suffering from an imaginary paranoia and in need of some person to sympathize with, and those who desperately need laughter in their lives.

Avoid as if it were Gordon Ramsey at a Burger King: The joke is that Gordon Ramsey would never be caught dead at a Burger King. This is one of those books that I would recommend to most everyone.

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