Thursday, February 26, 2009
A Confederacy of dunces by John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a novel, like Catch-22 or the works of Kurt Vonnegut, that is best read when young. It was published in 1980 (eleven years after the suicide of the author and approximately thirteen years after it was written), and had I read it then, aged sixteen, I would have thought it one of the best pieces of literature ever produced. Coming to it now, as a gnarled forty-something, I still think it’s pretty damned good.
Its central character, Ignatius J Reilly, is one of the finest (and funniest) anti-heroes you are likely to come across, a Southern Gothic white-trash freak crossed with Tony Hancock or Basil Fawlty, suffused with the questing spirit of Don Quixote, with a malevolent streak as wide as his own enormous girth and a reactionary nature that makes old-school Tories look like rabid revolutionaries. And it is this latter point that makes the book so interesting. Written in the sixties, in a time of revolutionary fervour and – apparently, seemingly – enormous change, Ignatius’s spirit would seem to be, on first reading, completely out of step with the times. Indeed, he prides himself on his contempt for modern culture. He watches pap television precisely in order to be offended by it, fulminating at its inanity, it stupidity, its predictableness. Likewise, he goes to the cinema and offers, to the irritation and disgust of all around, running commentaries on precisely why the film is so pitiably awful. Progress, he is saying, is a curse.
In this, of course, we can see echoes of the Southern Gothic tradition from which Toole emerges and which he so merrily lampoons. Ignatius could easily, with an injection of morbid religiosity, be transformed into a character out of Flannery O’Connor. Or he could happily sit by the roadside with a late-Faulknerian construct and lament the passing of the old, good ways.
What makes Ignatius such an extraordinary character is that everything about him is grotesque. He is uniquely dislikeable, which is why Toole’s writing is so brilliant: he deliberately creates a horrific character and yet, somehow, the reader falls under his spell. Yes, he’s repulsive, we say; yes, he’s a monster, but he’s our monster. He’s fat, narcissistic, selfish, greedy, a hypochondriac, a misanthrope, cruel, manipulative, offensive, even criminal. He treats his mother abominably. He behaves inexcusably towards his employers (one is subjected to a massive law suit because of his actions). What friends and acquaintances he has are buried beneath an avalanche of Ignatius’s self-interest. He detests a modernity which he thinks is rank and depraved, and has done his best in his thirty-year existence to shun it. Thus, it is that the novel’s core comes from the enforced, hilarious collision of a reluctantly job-seeking Ignatius and a society which is ill-equipped to manage this human gargoyle.
But for all his hatred of modernity, Ignatius is more modern than he (and the reader) realises, and his reactionary nature is complex. For example, some of his thoughts emerge in letters to his old college friend, Myrna Minkoff, with whom he waged a battle against the conformity of his teachers and whose approval, though many years later and separated from him by hundreds of miles, he still appears, in a typically contrary way, to covet. She is modern, he is traditional; she is sex-obsessed, he is sex-appalled. Each tries, on the face of it, to persuade the other. Each, in a way, is pursuing the other. Each, clearly, wants the other. Opposites, but, in the end, so much the same. And yet, whatever attraction there may be is, once more, buried beneath the monstrous self-interest of this monstrous man.
There is, of course, something appealing about such monstrosity. However much we deplore Ignatius’s behaviour, there is something liberating about such free-spirited refusal to conform to anything, even the prevailing sixties’ sense of non-conformity. Ignatius will not bow to any authority, but neither is he in thrall to notions of free-will or revolutionary spirit like the typical children of the sixties. He is a reactionary out of time. And that is why he is such an important character in modern literature. He is the other face of the sixties, perhaps the true face, the face that prevailed. For, after all, what happened to the children of the revolution? What are they now, these baby boomers, but reactionaries? What is the revisionism we see in relation to the 1960s but a reactionary attempt to turn back the tide? All revolutionaries become, in the end, reactionary. And, because nothing can stay the same, all reactionaries must effect change.
Thus, in A Confederacy of Dunces, the arch-reactionary, the hater of modernity, is at the same time the ultimate revolutionary. As the story nears its climax, Ignatius begins a crusade to turn all military personnel into homosexuals because that would be the best way of eliminating war. Not even the flower-power hippies of 1967 took their thinking to that level of profound insanity. The revolution is only a lunatic away. And thus, Ignatius J. Reilly is the sixties writ large. He is, indeed, a man out of time, a man who wanted only to reside in the past, who hated the prospect of progress. But here we are, in 2009, and he is still a man for our times. He is a man of the past with whom the future has caught up.