Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

12 Responses to “Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces”

  1. ted

    A thousand people have told me that they loooove this book. Usually they are very smart readers with an irreverent streak, so I have tried this book again and again and cannot stand it. So it was nice to read such a thoughtful reaction.

  2. nicole

    It’s hard for me to dig back to all my feelings when I read this, but I did think it was funny and grotesque, and I think I could probably agree with your implication that based on that I didn’t “think of the grotesque…as something still very human.” I think at that time in my life I was less likely to do so, and that a re-read at this point might be more brutal than humorous.

  3. Jacob Russell

    Perhaps one needs to be in touch of one’s inner anarchist to enjoy this book. I did find it funny–laugh out loud funny–like Night at the Opera or Duck Soup–that kind of anarchy. Ignatius is indeed, a force of nature, but nature that has assimilated much of what makes us human and turned it inside out–his raging super-ego (think: Sade), his feroucious perversion of the intellect, his willfullness. Rabalais–yes, and Carnaval (this is New Orleans with a vengence, and Ignatius is Carnaval, Carnaval dressed as in Lent in tatters.

    I think it helps if one is a bit uncomfortable with the absurdly oppresive nature of the civilization that makes possible our comforts, of the price of socialization, uneasy with the not so hidden violence, the insanity of the structures of power we pay for and depend on to keep us safe and warm and well fed.

    Confereracy of Dunces made me laugh, but it’s a serious sort of laughter… again, I think of the Marx Brothers… relief at having to believe that “it all makes sense.” … laughter with a nervous edge, glimpsing the deeper truth… that none of it does.

  4. litlove

    To be honest, this sounds like a book that falls into a category I don’t get on with terribly well. Have you ever read Boris Vian? You might have done; I can’t abide him. Then I tried to read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita recently and couldn’t get past the first few pages. Literature ‘is’ lots of things, and some of those beings invite us in more readily than others. I find I can’t deal with books that don’t have deep, strong anchors to reality. I love magic realism, so it’s not fantasy that bothers me, no. But magic realism is interested in bringing out what’s even more real within reality and giving it a form. What I can’t get along with is the kind of text that maintains a consistent, distanced, parodic or surreal veneer over the kind of reality I could identify with. Does that make any sense? I’ve been wondering about my problems with Bulgakov for a while without being able to put them into words. There’s a kind of excessive, playful surreal that ‘isn’t’ anything for me. Not that it wouldn’t be wonderful for other, just that it doesn’t touch me.

  5. Colleen

    I recall finding this novel hilarious, but in that unremittingly and viciously satiric way that Jonathan Swift’s stuff was funny – and of course, the title of Toole’s book is a quotation from Swift.

    I think this novel, like Swift’s satirical works, leaves nothing unscathed by the author’s probing satirical eye. It’s a hopeless sort of humour but to me, still funny. I can see how it wouldn’t be for everyone though.

  6. verbivore

    Ted – Based on last night’s discussion with my book group, you either like this book or you don’t. I’m still torn, mainly because I can see why it would be funny but the reading experience was distinctly not fun.

    Nicole – I suspect if I had read this book in high school I would have enjoyed it without going further. Ignatius would have disgusted me, the story would have made me laugh, I would have cheered for Jones and Officer Mancuso and just tossed it aside after. But it strikes me as more complicated than that now…

    Jacob – Your mention of Carnival really struck me. The tradition in Switzerland, although its a bit tamed down now, is a longish period of pure anarchy. An escape from rules and “right”. So yes, I see that in the novel. And can celebrate it in a limited sense.

    Litlove – I love what you say here. I’m also uncomfortable with the veneer over a reality I can keep a grip on. I can discuss this book on an intellectual level, and find a way to appreciate it, but emotionally I’m happy to keep far, far away from it.

    Colleen – It’s funny because I have a pretty dark sense of humor, and I can laugh at the absurd but there was something about this book that kept me from laughing out loud. It may be the time of my life I’m reading it, who knows. I am sad Toole never got the chance to write anything else. I suspect he would have produced something else remarkable.

    Chartroose – I wouldn’t have read it except my book group selected it, as it was I was the only one who finished it for our meeting! One woman outright refused to spend her time on it – so I think it’s a book that makes an impact. And hard to predict whether favorable or negative.

  7. Care

    I am so curious! Your words have me thinking about what and how my latest read and how the author’s style bugs me. Is it me and my approach as I participant in the experience?

  8. Jacob Russell

    Cory, I’ll check this out. Litlove… what IS our ‘reality’, if not a parodic, surreal venear? Within the shell, the Disneyfied commercial carnavel killing machine, to be sure… are real lives, parent snd children, lovers and friends… but a representation of ‘reality’ that disregards or ignores–that in no way accounts for the interaction between these individual stories and the monsterous slaughterhouse-designed-like-a-mall we live in… how does that ever escape the genre of… trite escapist entertainment? The has to *something* to open us to the strangeness of our canned and processed existence, no?

    I will indeed check out this discussion!

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