Friday, November 5, 2010

Entry 20: "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole (1981)

Please forgive the tardiness of this entry—the past three weeks have been an absolute blur in my life. I moved up to Evanston, IL from Bradley and have been struggling getting acclimated to my new environment, my new job, my new absence of social life, my new absence of community. In the midst of my several panic attacks that I endured, I probably should have been reading to calm myself down, but I just couldn't focus longer than a couple of pages at a time. So I spent a lot of the time I usually spend reading Pulitzers in prayer, in playing my guitar, in watching television, in nights of debauchery (a funny story, in retrospect), and in calling several different people on the phone on a daily basis.

However, once I got a little more settled in, and a little more settled down, I once again committed myself to reading and have finally produced a finished novel. Twenty-four novels down, sixty to go; and, as it turned out, I needed to read this book at this time in my life—if for no other reason, to cheer me up and keep me preoccupied.

I'd like to know why John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1981—this novel is quite unlike all of the other novels which have won since the Pulitzer's 1917 inception; in fact, it is quite unlike a lot any of the novels I have ever read. Whereas all of the Pulitzers I have read thus far on this journey are deeply serious and deal with the entirety of the human condition, with all its dramas, tragedies, and perplexities, A Confederacy of Dunces is romping comedic farce.

In fact, I daresay, I would go so far as to give it a label that my reading partner, Joshua, and I have never quite understood: this book is a "rollicking tour de force." I have read reviews of so many books where the reviewer actually used that phrase, and I have never been able to wrap my mind around it—it's just such a bizarre collection of words in one phrase; however, I can think of no other way to describe A Confederacy of Dunces. The reviews collected on the back of my edition are quite similar:

"A corker, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book."—The Washington Post

"A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing less than a grand comic fugue."—The New York Times Book Review

"An astonishingly original and assured comic spree."—New York

"...the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."—Chicago Sun-Times

I'd like to add "'A rollicking tour de force.'—Drew Moody" to that list of accolades.
Let me first say that this is the funniest work of fiction I have ever read. Of course, in my world of fiction, I can only really compare it to Nick Hornby or Christopher Moore; be that as it may, I cannot fathom a comedy out there that's funnier, nor more well written than John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. The dialogue in this book is so clever, so wrought with wit and hilarity, that it is nearly impossible not to actually laugh out loud at every turn of the page. With Olive Kitteridge and Gilead, I had to put the book down every couple pages because the drama was so intense I had to catch my breath; with A Confederacy of Dunces, I had to put the book down every couple of pages because I had to catch my breath from laughing so hard. In fact, Joshua just texted me a little while ago and told me he was having trouble reading the book while substitute teaching during study hall because he couldn't stop laughing.

Here's just a small collection of some of the lines that had me in stitches:
  • "I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." 
  • "'It smells terrible in here.' 'Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.'"
  • "Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today's employer is seeking."
  • "I suspect that I am the result of particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner."
  • "Between notes, he had contemplated means of destroying Myrna Minkoff but had reached no satisfactory conclusion. His most promising scheme had involved getting a book on munitions from the library, constructing a bomb, and mailing it in plain paper to Myrna. Then he remembered that his library card had been revoked."  
  • "Apparently I am pushing a jinx about the streets. I am certain that I can do better with some other wagon. A new cart, a new start." (this said while being questioned why he hadn't sold any hotdogs in his new profession as a hotdog street vendor)
  • "... I tried to end our little duel. I called out pacifying words; I entreated; I finally surrendered. Still Clyde came, my pirate costume so great a success that it had apparently convinced him that we were back in the golden days of romantic old New Orleans when gentlemen decided matters of hot dog honor at twenty paces."
  • "Employers sense in me a denial of their values...they fear me. i suspect that they can see that i am forced to function in a century which i loathe."
Now, if you go back and re-read some of my previous entries in which I transcribe direct quotes from the novel which I was reading, you'll find that these lines are entirely unlike anything else I've read along this Pulitzer journey. All of the other books, although at times very different from each other, still possess enough similarities to each other that it's no wonder why those particular novels won. In one way or another, they all deal with Americana, heartache, tragedy, society, war, family values, politics, etc. A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing like that—while it does share a big focus on family dynamics with its Pulitzer counterparts, it is more about a big, fat, slobbering, oafish gargantuan of a man who can't hold down even the easiest of jobs, is wildly pigheaded, self-righteous, and, possibly, insane. Furthermore, rather than approaching his subject matter in a highly serious, almost reverent manner, Toole instead approached these subjects in a manner of high-octane comedic calamity.

So, then, I'd really like to know the reason why A Confederacy of Dunces won the highest accolade in American literature. Could it be that, in 1981, the Pulitzer committee ignored subject matter altogether and instead actually rewarded outstanding writing? As aforementioned, this book is extremely well-written and the dialogue, and even the narrative, is so fastidiously crafted that one can't help but marvel at the book's rich complexities. As a side note, I'd like to add that if you're looking to advance your personal daily lexicon, I highly recommend reading this novel and keeping it close by. While reading it, you may also want to have a dictionary or thesaurus readily available.
Now, if this book weren't interesting enough on its own, the stories surrounding the book certainly are...

The novel is autobiographical, in a sense, of John Kennedy Toole's life. Not all of the accounts are true to his life, but the characters in it, the emotions and attitudes, and the situations in which the characters find themselves are very similar to Toole's life. Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of the novel, isn't quite a spitting image of John Kennedy Toole, but is similar enough for the reader to know they are meant to be one in the same. Even though the character was initially based on Toole's friend, Bob Byrne, even Byrne has admitted:
Ken Toole was a strange person. He was extroverted and private. And that's very difficult. He had a strong...desire to be recognized....but also a strong sense of alienation. That's what you have in Ignatius Reilly.
Toole was an interesting character in his own right—a university professor that was heralded and acclaimed by his students for his grandiose and comedic lectures, a wildly talented writer, by all appearances from an outsider's perspective, a fairly successful man. But his personal life was wrought with horror—he suffered from extreme paranoia and self-loathing, he was reclusive, and his interactions with the outside world were shrouded in mystery. Nobody quite understood the man and attempting to understand him was entirely futile.

Over the course of a few years, he had written A Confederacy of Dunces and submitted it to multiple publishers around the country, but never had any luck. Rejection after rejection were the result of his efforts to get his novel published, and these rejections only added to his paranoia and self-loathing. He was humiliated by rejection. All of the publishers were encouraging in their rejections, reminding Toole that he was very talented as a writer, and that the book showed a lot of promise, but none of them could consciously publish the original manuscript as it was. They all wanted him to revise and revise, and perhaps rewrite the book altogether, but Toole wouldn't hear of it.

All of these rejections eventually led to Toole's suicide in 1969 at the young age of 31. Suffering from depression and feelings of self-persecution, Toole left home on a journey around the country. He stopped in Mississipi to end his life by running a garden hose in from the exhaust of his car to the cabin.

Toole's mother, however, was not satisfied with the demise of her son (and justifiably so). During the two years following her son's death, she also suffered from depression, but then decided to once again having his manuscript published believing it would be a monument to her son's talent. She spent the next several years taking the manuscript to smaller publishing houses around the country and was met with the same rejection her son faced. However, she eventually found an interested person in the renowned novelist Walker Percy. Percy read the novel begrudgingly, only to get Mrs. Toole to stop constantly pestering him to read it. He was shocked to find that he actually loved it: "In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good." Percy spent the next three years pitching it to agents and publishers before finally finding a publisher in Louisiana State University Press in 1980. John Kennedy Toole's single claim to fame finally came, eleven years after his suicide.

The first run of the book was only 2,500 copies and, at first, it generated very little interest with the public, despite the amount of the attention it was getting from the literary world. A year later, in 1981, Toole was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize—that's when A Confederacy of Dunces really came to life and became one of the most revered and popular books in Southern literature in recent memory, having sold more than 1.5 million copies and having been translated in 18 different languages.

This story's story doesn't end there, however...

After the novel started to become wildly popular, deals were slated to turn it into a feature film. Once a script had been drawn up, and a deal was reached with a certain studio, casting took place: for the role of Ignatius J. Reilly, John Belushi was cast; however, two days before the meeting with Universal executives to finalize the deal, Belushi died of a drug overdose. Interestingly enough, Richard Pryor was also initially cast to play Burma Jones, another character in the novel. Five months after Belushi's death, the woman who led the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered by her husband, which brought the efforts to shoot the film in New Orleans—and the production itself—to a halt. A few years later, plans were made to attempt making the film again and John Candy was cast to play Reilly—he too died. A few years later the same fate met another actor cast as Reilly—Chris Farley. Once the 2000's came, and A Confederacy of Dunces had still not been made into a movie, the studio once again pulled it from the shelf to once again attempt making the film. Will Ferrel was a favorite to play Reilly, and all lights seemed green to go ahead with production; that is, until New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

There are those who believe the novel is "cursed," which is reason for concern for me. I've always had an unfounded superstition that I wouldn't live to see the age of 30. I don't know why—that's just how I've always felt for as long as I can remember. While reading this novel, bearing these stories in mind, every time I straddled the seat of my bicycle and rode to work, a delivery van or a CTA bus would swerve without signaling, coming within mere feet of flattening me and the thought "This is how it ends" would flash through my mind. In my adjustment to this new city, this new way of living, I have become a bit of a recluse, never venturing outside my apartment unless to go to work, just like John Kennedy Toole.

I'm probably reading way too much into this. But what if I'm not?

No... I'm reading way too much into this.

But what if...

5 comments:

  1. One of my friends always says she'll never make it to 30 either.

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  2. Whoa! Laughing...then not. Laughing...then not. Be very careful on that bike! I had heard part of the story of this book but not all of that film stuff. Wooee.

    It does look hilarious. And I love Christopher Moore and Nick Hornby, so I will give it a whirl.

    So glad the Pulitzer committee can appreciate comedy, too.

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  3. The king wears no clothes. Simply trash. Please!

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  4. John Kennedy Toole Jr.January 22, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    Good evening.

    Recently I published a parody of "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole; you can find "A Cornucopia of Dunderheads" at Amazon.com.

    Regards,
    John Kennedy Toole Jr.

    ReplyDelete