Temporal frames distend and collapse when I look at “A Confederacy of Dunces,” one of my favorite novels: the early 1960s, when it was written; the early 1980s, when it was published; the early 2000s, when I first read it; the early 2020s, as I write this. I try to explain the novel to people who don’t know much about it- “the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a gigantic eccentric with a medieval mindset let loose on mid-twentieth century New Orleans,” I’ll say, and the response I’ll get is “oh, he sounds like today he’d be an alt-right forum troll!” It’s a thought I’ve had myself, though these days I’ve been leaning away from that conclusion. Let’s just say I recognize that a character like Ignatius, a fat thirty year old virgin living with his mother and screaming about violations of “geometry and theology” comes off a certain way today for very legitimate reasons… but it’s still wrong, and the way that it’s wrong speaks to the uniqueness of what John Kennedy Toole accomplished.
Maybe a “just the facts” approach to the book is called for here… “A Confederacy of Dunces” follows the doings of Ignatius Reilly and assorted people with whom he is in contact across a few weeks in early sixties New Orleans. Tracking the narrative incident by incident won’t work, too much occurs. Ignatius is ejected from the cozy womb of his house with his mother when she drunkenly crashes their car into a building, causing damages that forces Ignatius into the workforce to repay. Going to work, as far as Ignatius is concerned, is the central perversion of a historical epoch that has only gotten more and more perverse since the pre-Reformation period. He gets a job as a clerk in a pants factory and as a cart-based hot dog man, and is fired from both jobs due to a mixture of spectacular incompetence and sabotage- it’s hard to tell where the one begins and the other ends. His mother, meanwhile, grows concerned about his increasingly erratic behavior and her own shrinking list of options, and egged on by new friends, moves towards decisively ending Ignatius’s free existence.
Each scenario adds new characters with their own trajectories that intersect at various angles to create comedic situations: the proprietress of a dive bar who looks to make a quick sleazy buck any way she can; a hapless policeman; a black man forced to work for sub-minimum wage looking to do some sabotage of his own; the owner of the pants factory and his wife; a member of the city’s gay demimonde; Ignatius’s old college lady-frenemy and civil rights agitator; and a few more.
All of the characters in the book are what I modestly call “Berard-complete”: they are believable characters with motivations but without tedious fleshing out and psychologizing ala mainstream literary fiction. The character who makes the most out of a “rich inner life” is Ignatius, who is at one and the same time something of a wonder of complexity, a complete failure as a human being, and a repudiation of most accepted ideas of “character development” and depth psychology. This approach to character runs into some contemporary issues. Tedious complexity (which usually means inconsistency and unreality, but that’s a story for another day) is the sine qua non for “fleshed out” characters, “fleshed out” characters from marginalized groups is a major progressive literary bona fide and, more to the point, a way to avoid being labeled a “white bro” writer or whatever. Ignatius is fleshed out, figuratively and literally- he overawes other characters and readers with his fleshiness and persona, his sudden shifts in mood and ideas (all explicable within his larger system), with, as he puts it, his “rather grand being.” It’s a good thing for the other characters and the world they live in, I think Toole might argue, that they aren’t. This is just another way reading this book collapses frames of assumption that build up and layer over each other over time.
These descriptions don’t really get across what the book is like. Humor is notoriously difficult to analyze in such a way that the funniness remains intact. Toole uses third person omniscient narration to keep all of these characters in play. He mostly lets the situations spool themselves out but isn’t shy about letting the reader know the dire facts of the situation when it makes things funnier, typically some situation involving Ignatius’s body or a botched attempt at communication. In terms of genre, it’s satire in the old sense of Juvenal and Swift (the title of the book is extracted from the writings of the latter), of holding up a mirror to society and showing its distortions, while at the same time being a comedy in the Shakespearean sense- everyone winds up, if not married, then content enough with their just desserts. One wonders — well, I wonder anyway — if this book being released and becoming a hit when it did, in the early eighties, helped cause the satire-comedy confusion that continues to this day. It seamlessly combines the two and was a hit with the Gen Xers who have done a lot to define humor in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries… more funny temporal dilations attributable to this singular novel.
One of the reasons this book is funny with time is because of its unusual path to publication, which isn’t funny at all. Toole finished the book in 1963 and shopped it to publishers. Rejection wasn’t the issue- all writers face that. What Toole got was an extended back and forth with the editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, a major figure in the industry, best known for having discovered “Catch-22.” Gottlieb kept praising Toole on the one hand and denying him on the other, insisting that in order to be published, the book would need to have “a point.” Toole never satisfied Gottlieb on that score and eventually gave up. After facing a series of further rejections and declining mental health for much of the rest of the sixties, Toole asphyxiated himself with car exhaust in 1969, at age 31. His mother, Thelma, with whom Toole was close (she is, arguably, the model for Ignatius’s mother Irene, an ambiguous tribute if there ever was one), spent the next decade trying to get publishers interested in the manuscript. The foreword to my copy of “Confederacy” is by prominent novelist Walker Percy, who tells the story of how this strange woman shoved her dead son’s book into his hands, how he wanted it to be bad so he could go about his business, but it turned out to be “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Percy shepherded it into print and the rest is history. I’m not the biggest fan of the Percy books I’ve read, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for hearing Thelma out. We can rage at the gatekeepers like Gottlieb, if we want, and I’ve seen some “Confederacy” nerds do so, with more or less justification. But even then, the book and way it plays with time doesn’t make it easy for us- Toole got the last laugh.
It’s a mistake, from what I can tell, to read too much of Ignatius into John Kennedy Toole. Toole could function outside of New Orleans, away from his mother, unlike Ignatius. He had friends and lovers and was apparently a hit at the Tulane cocktail circuit when he taught there. But like Ignatius, he had a lot to communicate and difficulty finding listeners, especially listeners not keen on fitting his words into one or another agenda of theirs. Ignatius could not have written something like “A Confederacy of Dunces” — that took someone who strived, got somewhere, but never truly got himself across (except posthumously), like Toole. Like a lot of great humor, “A Confederacy of Dunces” relies on the necessity and impossibility of communication. We need to say what is going on with us but we can never be sure we are saying it right or are being understood properly. The calamities this causes, the whys and wherefores that can be processed and laughed at from a distance and the immediacy of squirming discomfort great writers and comedians can make you feel witnessing this most basic human problem, is probably my favorite kind of humor, if I had to get analytical (i.e. not funny) about it. This puts “A Confederacy of Dunces” in a third of the classic genres, along with satire and comedy: tragedy, the tragedy of failure to connect or to connect only under false pretenses. Managing to keep the satirical, the comedic, and the tragic ball in the air at the same time is not the least of Toole’s feats.
Did Toole manage to communicate with us, beyond the grave, as it were? There’s near infinite ways to understand (or misunderstand) “A Confederacy of Dunces” — as goofy humor, as southern gothic, as New Orleans tourism ad, as predicting the modern reactionary troll as discussed near the beginning of this piece, as “pointless” like Gottlieb thought, etc. The pedant in me — maybe the Ignatius, though unlike him, I try to treat my dear mother well — wants to say all of those are wrong, that Toole didn’t, couldn’t communicate through the fog of his lacking interlocutors (except maybe to me, the right one). But no- there’s basis for most or all of those, and it’s genuinely a good thing high school kids (like I was when I first read it), New Orleanians, the legion of failed film adaptors (everyone from Jim Belushi to Divine to Will Ferrell has been cast as Ignatius at some point or another) get what they get out of it. Out of the tragedy of the human need to communicate, sometimes, something good grows- and in keeping with its roots in the murk of discourse, it will be something different for everyone. This is the real way to collapse time: to tell stories, always changing but maintaining recognizable lineaments, across the years.