Posted by James C. Arrington on 4/30/2009
I AM CURRENTLY FINISHING UP MY FOURTH READING OF CONFEDERACY. I LOVE TO GET INTO EACH CHARACTER WHEN READING IT TO MY WIFE. I HAVE NEVER LAUGHED HARDER WHEN READING ANY BOOK. IT ONLY GETS BETTER EACH TIME. I WOULD LOVE TO SEE IT ON FILM, BUT I CAN SEE IT PLAYING IN MY HEAD EACH TIME. AWESOME.IF YOU HAVE NOT READ IT, YOU MUST.
It was the best of books, it was the worst of books
Posted by Herbert V. Leighton on 7/26/2007
I have looked through many of these reviews, and no one has yet explained why many reviewers think it is the best book ever, and many think it is the worst book ever. Here is my attempt.
Why some people laugh till they choke
Ignatius is a physical comedian. He follows in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Victorian classic "Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog," the Marx brothers, the Pink Panther movies ("The Return of the Pink Panther" is the best), and Mr. Bean. So if you laughed uncontrollably at Chief Inspector Dreyfus's facial tick because he wanted to kill Clouseau, if you laughed when Chaplin kicked the policeman in the pants and ran, or when Mr. Bean accidentally popped a bag of vomit over a sleeping passanger's face, then you are more likely to enjoy this book. It also helps if you were an obedient student and learned all those vocabulary words in English class, because Ignatius is a very learned, pompous slapstick comedian.
What proof do I have of this? Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) once made a documentary about the aspects of physical comedy (made in 1992, the TV series was called "Funny Business," the episode was called "Laughing Matters", the relevant sections on Youtube are parts 4 and 5). In that lecture, he said that the personality traits of the physical comedian are the following.
1. He is alienated from the society around him: Ignatius stays in his room in his mother's house.
2. He is childish: Ignatius thinks his mother should still support him at age 30.
3. He has to fight with ordinary objects: Ignatius cannot even ride in a bus.
4. His body can be humorous by itself: Did I mention Ignatius is obese?
5. He is uncivilized and cannot or will not conform to social rules: Ignatius's first act in the book is to hit a policeman in the head with a rolled up sheet of music.
6. He is a threat to respectable people: On first seeing him, the policeman immediately tries to arrest him. Even a strip-tease club wants to get rid of him.
7. He mocks authority and politeness: Ignatius is rude and heaps scorn on everyone.
8. He spreads confusion: Ignatius causes the climactic chaos of the book.
9. ... I cannot tell you the ninth quality without giving away the ending. But the book conforms to it as well.
Why some people hate the book
While there has been some smirking and name calling, it is obvious that some who hate the book are quite literate and are not at all dunces. ACoD haters include those who say they like Catch-22, Ground Hog's Day, and other humor classics. Remember, many publishers rejected it, and even Walker Percy didn't realize it was good until about page 50. Most good books sparkle long before that point. Why are its qualities sometimes hard to see?
Although Ignatius is a physical comedian, his humor is not lightning fast like Charlie Chaplin or the Marx brothers. It is hard to quote a funny line, because each line in isolation isn't that funny. They are only funny in the total context of the story. Catch-22 is a book that is hundreds of pages of variations of the same joke. If you liked the basic joke, you love the book. If you hated the joke, you hate the book. With ACoD, if you recognize Ignatius as a slow-burning physical comedian early on--and you find his stately slapstick funny--you will love every page of the book. If you either fail to get the character at all or do not find his version of slapstick funny, you will hate the book.
The book was the first attempt to publish by the author, and it is bit rough. The repetition of metaphors and phrases can be annoying, especially if you are not already laughing. Ignatius is described by animal metaphors repeatedly. He says the same phrases repeatedly. There are very few one-liners by any of the characters. The complicated multi-story plot unfolds slowly. If you are not already in on the joke while this is going on, it is painful. If you are, it is delicious. That is my explanation for the love/hate reviews.
A further theory
I am writing a scholarly article about this book. I have searched the scholarly literature high and low and have not found any other writings on my idea. I have thought about explaining my main concept here, to establish a claim of priority, but I have decided against it. Instead, I will give a brief explanation of an side claim, to demonstrate some of the drift of my thinking. So here it goes.
Ignatius complains throughout the book about Fortune's Wheel. In medieval thinking, everyone was attached to a wheel of fortune. Sometimes you were up and had good fortune; other times you were spun down into ill fortune. Good things happen to bad people and vice versa, so luck does not follow worldy ideas of justice. Or to put it plainly: Life ain't fair.
But in the book, Ignatius himself acts as fortune's wheel. When he arrives at the Night of Joy the second time, Lana and George are in good fortune, and Burma Jones and Darlene have ill fortune. Through Ignatius, their luck is reversed. When Ignatius appears at Levy Pants, Mrs. Levy is controlling both Mr. Levy and Miss Trixie. Through Ignatius, Mr. Levy gets the upper hand, Mrs. Levy has lost power, and Miss Trixie can finally retire. This spherical man acts as a catalyst, spinning the fortunes of the other characters. When Mancuso first interacts with Ignatius, his luck turns bad, but in the end, Mancuso has triumphed, and Lana is off to prison, where she will need some consolation of philosophy.
Boethius wrote in the Consolation of Philosophy that fortune hands out luck that we cannot understand in this world, but which is part of the overall plan of divine justice. Instead of divine justice, Ignatius rolls his circular form through the world, and in his farcical chaos he rights wrongs of this world and brings worldy, poetic justice to the characters. He is fortune's wheel.
Note from December 2008: In the article by Richard Simon (1994). "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 36(1), page 113, in a footnote, Simon argues that Ignatius represents Fortuna herself. My claim is slightly different: that Ignatius is her wheel.
Posted by Rozann Baghdad Kraus on 9/29/2009
One of my favoorite books of all time. Delivered promptly and in perfect condition.
Posted by Barry in Birmingham on 12/10/2005
A friend loaned me a copy of this book over twenty years ago, telling me that this was a novel I simply must not miss reading. Not quite believing his enthusiastic praise, I opened the book and was introduced to the gargantuan, flatulent, self-important, arrogantly pseudo-intellectual person of Ignatius J. Reilly. By the end of the first paragraph, I was intrigued. By the end of the first scene, in which he nearly causes a riot in front of D.H Holmes, I was hopelessly hooked. In the decades that have passed since that first reading, "Confederacy" has steadily ascended my list of all-time favorite books, becoming more deliciously funny with each reading.
Ignatius is an unforgettable character. Ensconced in his ramshackle room, strewn with Big Chief tablets filled with invective toward the twentieth century and his longing for the good old days of the Dark Ages, he brews his indictment of modernity and of anything and everything he considers lacking in "theology and geometry". Unfortunately for him, his mother's drunken driving brings the threat of legal action when she demolishes part of a building and he is faced with the appalling need to Go To Work. Needless to say, the working world isn't quite prepared for this Don Quixote in a hunting cap.
Along the way, there are a number of equally priceless supporting characters, each a gem in its own right. The hopelessly inept Patrolman Mancuso sniffles his way about the seedier parts of New Orleans, in his outrageous "undercover" costume of the day, sadly hoping to arrest some "suspicious character". Miss Lana Lee, of the quite inappropriately named Night of Joy bar, provides, um, charity work for the orphans, discreetly wrapped in plain brown paper and collected by a local hoodlum. Then there's Jones, who plots his revenge against Lana's tyranny as an employer from within a cloud of blue cigarette smoke. All of these and others are superbly woven together in this grand comic tale, their stories and fates drawn together by Fortuna's wheel, as Ignatius might say.
As others have remarked, Toole's suicide pre-empted what likely would have been a wonderful literary career. An unpublished author at his death, Toole's only other work is a short novel called "The Neon Bible", written while he was in his teens. That book is sufficiently inferior to "Confederacy" that I have never bothered to buy my own copy. However, I am now on my fourth copy of this novel, and expect it to continue to be a book I revisit time and again.
Most highly recommended.