A RECIPE FOR LAUGHTER
Written by: Tobin Wait
“When a true genius appears in the world,
You may know him by this sign, that the dunces
Are all in confederacy against him.”
Good books are ones that make you feel something, but also make you think; they provide the reader with a visceral and intellectual experience. Through character and plot, they make you think about people, about the world, in a different way. They change you. They become classics.
And then there is the rare book, the destined-to-be-a-classic that just makes you laugh your ass off. A Confederacy of Dunces is indeed a rarity: a work of literature that can accurately be described as a comic masterpiece, joining a very short list of novels, including Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide.
The ironic and tragic story of the book’s history is now a literary legend. John Kennedy Toole was an intelligent and witty native of New Orleans. He was a scholar, a writer and a teacher, who also lived his whole life with his parents (except for a brief stint in the army). He finished the novel in 1964, and sent it to two major publishers, both of whom rejected it. Toole became depressed and dejected, and after a final rejection, committed suicide in 1969 at age 31.
The manuscript lay on top of his desk in his parent’s home. His mother found it two years later, and tried to get it published, believing it would validate her son’s life. It was rejected seven times, before she literally forced the author Walker Percy to read the manuscript in 1976, while he was teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was blown away, and it was finally published in 1980, sixteen years after its completion. It quickly became a cult hit, then a mainstream smash, and then a literary success. In 1981, twelve years after his death, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
At the heart of A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the greatest comic characters of any era of fiction: Ignatius J. Reilly. Quixotic (a modern day Don Quixote, really), idealistic, eccentric, slovenly and delusional, Ignatius is both repulsive and fascinating. Like many great tragic-comic characters, Nabokov’s Pnin and Shakespeare’s Falstaff come to mind, Ignatius believes himself to be morally and intellectually above the rest of the world, and, therefore, able to criticize and object to all that is below him. This despite that fact that he is an obese, unemployed thirty year old man, still living at home with his mom, with very few skills besides eating, masturbation and cynicism.
The novel, then, is one series of misadventures after another, as Ignatius is forced by his mother to find a job and enter into the society that he is so quick to criticize. He eventually lands two menial jobs and both end in disaster. Needless to say, very little goes well for Ignatius, and a smorgasbord of comedy ensues: light and dark, highbrow and lowbrow. The title of the novel refers to the above lines from Jonathon Swift, and one of the novel’s great puzzles is trying to figure out if Ignatius is a genius or a dunce.
If Ignatius is the heart of the novel, then its star is the city of New Orleans, a perfect setting for this picaresque story. The sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smells, the architecture, the characters, the dialects: they are all captured vividly by Toole, a lifelong New Orleans resident. In fact, the novel is considered to be the most accurate portrayal of New Orleans ever written, and there is even a statue of Ignatius Reilly near the Chateau Bourbon Hotel in New Orleans today.
The beauty of A Confederacy of Dunces is that we don’t just laugh at Ignatius; we laugh with him as well. It’s easy to laugh at the misadventures of others, especially the delusional, but we also relate to Ignatius, and his over-bloated rants against the moronic nature of the world and the people who live in it. We may not want to be like Ignatius, but we can admire his unwavering buffoonery and eccentric worldview. In a way, Ignatius personifies the aversion we all have with stupidity and conformity.
The bottom line, however, is that the (mis)adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, and the oddball characters that surround him, will leave you shaking your head, rolling your eyes and, best of all, laughing till it hurts.