The backstory of this novel is actually quite tragic. It’s explained in the introduction by Walker Percy, who was the man instrumental in getting this published. The novel was written in 1963, after Toole’s other novel The Neon Bible, and both failed to get picked up by publishers. This drove him deeper into his existing depression, which eventually lead to his suicide in 1969. His mother later found the carbon copy of the manuscript in his house and brought it to Walker Percy after also failing to catch the interest of publishers. With Percy’s help, it was finally published in 1980. The novel went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and is now considered a modern classic. A bittersweet end to a sad tale.
A Confederacy of Dunces follows Ignatius J. Reilly as he lives his bizarre little life in New Orleans. The plot is all over the place, which is something I usually hate in novels, but for whatever reason I still loved this. Ignatius is an absolutely ridiculous character. He’s a fat, mustachioed, thirty year old man, living with his mother after spending years in university. He’s now an educated slob and snob who looks down on most people and everything in popular culture. With no job, and a mother who babies him, he basically splits his time between writing what he believes to be scathing social commentary, masturbating in his room, and complaining about the gas and bloating his pyloric valve is giving him. After his mother is in a minor car accident, he’s forced out into the world to try to earn some money.
“[…] I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius is an awful person, but it somehow manages to come off as funny rather than offensive. He hates nearly everything in the world equally, whether minorities or bowling, but in a way it’s a superficial hate, something he can drop whenever convenient to him. He can’t stand the modern world but couldn’t live without its comforts, for example, and that hypocrisy sinks into his every opinion. He’s so perfectly made out to be a pompous over-the-top asshole that the very act of him insulting something almost validates it, in a way. If you’re someone Ignatius agrees with, that’s probably a bad sign.
Despite how disgusting a man Ignatius is, there were awful flashes of familiarity when reading this. As someone who used to spend a lot of time thinking about important writing, while never actually doing any, and also as someone who has Crohn’s disease (thankfully very minor these days), having Ignatius constantly go on about his writing and dysfunctional valve was like looking through a window into a life where I had no self-awareness. If the next few years go incredibly poorly, this could be me. Wrapped up in Ignatius are little pieces of every obnoxious person you’ve ever hated.
“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.”
The reviews I’ve seen on this seem to be quite divided, and I think that’s probably because it’s a particular brand of humour that makes this book great. If you take away the hilarious dialogue and the insane characters, there’s not much of a coherent plot to stand on (although it all does tie up quite nicely, I thought), so I can see this being even more subjective than your average book.
Ignatius is a character that will stick in my mind for a long time, I think. To create a character so unlikable that you actually like him is an impressive feat.