On Thursday of last week, Jacob Russell published a very thoughtful post about how we access story – what are the ways in which the story opens itself up to us and how does our movement inside and toward that story alter it and alter us…I’ve been thinking about his post since I finished John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, mostly because I’m at a loss as to how I want to engage with this particular novel and how exactly I’m supposed to approach it.
I should take that word back – supposed to. I don’t think there is a correct way to engage with a text. There are a nearly endless variety of tools which can be used to approach literature. I have my favorites, which tend to focus on the way a story takes over my thinking, the way it creates its visuals inside my mind and the way the skeleton of the narrative (at the most basic level, I mean simply the words and how they fit together) is constructed to create its particular effect. That experience is what I try to pick apart and understand when I’m reading.
Beyond that, I am interested in what the story accomplishes. Where does it begin, where does it take me, who does it introduce me to and where does it ultimately end up…in this sense, I’m on a journey with the book, alongside its own journey and standing quietly by to see where we might end up crossing paths.
I don’t mind not crossing paths. Sometimes it’s enough to be a bystander and to try and puzzle through the logic of a particular work. This is where I stand with A Confederacy of Dunces. I watched and listened, spied and kept myself nearby, but I didn’t really step inside Toole’s incredibly bizarre universe. It was a vivid landscape and interesting, even funny, I suppose, but my overall impression left me baffled and a little disgusted.
A Confederacy of Dunces reminded me of Rabelais more than anything else. Grotesque beyond belief. Exaggerated. Outrageous. Grotesque doesn’t sit well with me, unless it’s funny. I’m still not sure whether this book was meant to be funny. I suspect it wasn’t. I suspect it was meant to be sad. The characters are diminished in every sense of the world – intellectually, emotionally, financially, physically. Even Ignatius, whom we are meant to believe is academically bright, struck me as the most diminished. He’s a psychopath. In the strictest sense of the word.
So now you might be wondering what this story is about. And instead of answering that question, I want to go back to something Jacob Russell wrote:
…the ‘is’ in ‘the story is about’ is not an equal sign, but an arrow. An arrow within the story pointing out. Not a one-way arrow, but an operational sign that points in two directions, away from the work (where the interpretation occurs, where the explanation is deciphered, where the reality of the fictional universe encounters and interacts with that of the reader’s experience) and back into the work, where it (the story) receives its meaning though that very interaction.
Okay, so this means I’m a participant in that phrase. I am a factor of the “is”. This is something I have always agreed with. The reader is an essential part of that narrative skeleton I mentioned before.
What this reminds me, though, is that the reason I’m struggling with how to approach this novel is because I’m unsure where I want to let that outward arrow land. Whether I want to accept Toole’s “grotesque” or reject it. If I reject it completely, the novel becomes funny. A total farce. And that outward arrow points at an easily digestible target. However, if I accept the grotesque in A Confederacy of Dunces as something still very human, as a part of our shared experience, then that outward and inward arrow ask a lot more of me.
I realize if you haven’t read A Confederacy of Dunces, this may all sound a little strange. But take any work of fiction which doesn’t soothe and I think you can apply a similar principle. I don’t ask my fiction to be redemptive, I think that’s false. But when its unwavering focus is the ugliness of the world and of people – and I think this is ultimately the project Toole’s novel takes up – without a single, solitary reprieve, it can be hard to find the energy to access the story, to want to move around inside it.