Monday, November 19, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

Slackers in fiction are a much loved lot, though the general perception they give is one of a life of laziness. The main reason is that slackers offer a vision of a lifestyle of general lazing around without doing any work but somehow managing to get by and indeed seemingly having a lot fun.(though it's obvious that in real life a slacker life would be one of difficulty rather than fun).  This (fictional) lifestyle is something that most of us can only dream of but do not have the guts to follow up on. In a way we live our lives as we want to through the slackers in fiction.  Even India, where we are supposed to treat work as worship has it's own lovable slacker AugustHowever slackers need not always be about fun alone, in some cases they are a reactionary force to the times in which we live, for instance one of the greatest slackers 'Yossarian' in 'Catch 22' is a hyper hysterical reaction to the times of World war II,a symbol of opposition to the destruction of war which is couched in the slacker mode  and that's what makes him so enduring even today. One such beloved slacker is 'Ignatius J. Reilly' in 'A Confederacy of Dunces' written by 'John Kennedy Toole'.

Ignatius is 30, unmarried (probably a virgin too),unemployed , living with his mother (Irene Reilly) and needless to say sponging of her. He is a modern day Don Quixote in that like Quixote he is tilting at imaginary enemies while his mother tries to make ends meet. If Quixote saw false nights in windmills, Ignatius has decided to wage war on the entire cultural scene of America. Wherever he sees, there is only depravity and decadence and it's up to Ignatius to set things right. However there is a major difference between Quixote and Ignatius. While the former genuinely believed in his ideas and was almost delusional, the latter is shrewd and cunning enough to know when he is in trouble and has no qualms about making another person suffer for his activities, like how at the beginning of the novel he makes poor old 'Claude' suffer for his altercation with a police man. And he is hypocritical enough to even justify it and also enjoy the same movies, actress while decrying them as being depraved. 

Irene is the typical mother proud of her son's supposedly great intellect (he is the apple of her eye), but who is realistic enough to know that intellect alone will not feed people and that he has to go out and work. Torn between admiration for her son's intellect and reality, she puts up with him until an incident happens and she has no other option but to force her son to work.  Ignatius's lazy lifestyle is shattered  and his worst nightmares come true as he now has to work. The rest of the novel is about Ignatius working in some places and the various characters that he comes in contact with disastrous consequences for both Ignatius and the characters. 

Humor in a book can be either in  the characters in it, or the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves in or in the writing itself. This is a book where there is mix of all there. The characters are weird enough like the Levy couple, with Mrs.Levy in particular who experiments her psychology studies on poor old Miss.Trixie. There is the inept policeman 'Angelo Mancuso' who though is conscientious, is bullied by his superiors because he avoids any confrontation and is always wanting to please others. He is the antithesis of Ingatius. There is also Lana lee, owner of a bar and involved in shady deals,  janitor of the bar 'Burma Jones' who seems stoned most of the time and 'Darlene' the stripper there, both of whom are being exploited by Lana.  Each one is distinct in his/her craziness. Incidents like Ignatius trying to take over the factory, him trying to sell Hot dogs propel the story along. The best part however is the humor in the writing. Even normal conversations are given a funny spin by Toole's deft touch, like the sarcastic back and forth and one-upmanship  between Lana and Jones. Though under the thumb of Lana, Jones gets his own though his repartees and even has the final laugh. You can have incredibly crazy characters or incidents in your book, but if the writing doesn't back them up all the jokes are going to fall flat. This is where the novel rises a few notch above most other novels in this genre. That's why even 'Myrna Minkoff whom we get to know only through her letters until the end becomes such an engaging character. Amidst all the fun though, Toole takes a stab at the pseudo-intellectual posturings of people through characters like Mrs.Levy's false kindness towards Miss.Trixie which is but a front for her treating Miss.Trixie as guinea pig, Myrna's radical orientations which are only a mask for the tendency of youth to be an iconoclast and finally even Ingatius himself whose rants against modern society is not a reactionary one like 'Yossarian' or completely delusional like 'Don Quixote' and is probably only the escapism of a lazy slug. That makes him even more enduring to us. 

Any mention of this novel will not be complete without mention of it's sad publishing history. Rejected by many publishers it was published in 1980, 11 years after the author's untimely demise (suicide at 31) which was no doubt precipitated by the rejection of his work from all quarters. It's surprising, even shocking that it didn't find any publishers given the fact that it is a very engaging work and better than the innumerable crap that gets published every year. And though this is a zany work it's in no way a groundbreaking having several precursors,  so one cannot assume that it was ahead of it's times and hence people failed to recognize the potential in it. I guess it's one of those inexplicably cruel and sad situations that people have to go through in their life. I just wonder what other works would Toole have produced if only his work had been published during his lifetime, if nothing else surely he would have lived longer.  Toole's life is also a reminder of how failure and rejection can haunt a person ultimately resulting in self-destruction and how art can be a dangerous thing in that it can consume the artist himself. To add insult to injury, the book was awarded the 'Pulitzer' on publication. The hilarity of the novel becomes poignant when contrasted with what happened in Toole's real life and it has always bothered me even during re-reads. Even without considering the publishing history and becoming emotional about wanting to like the book (which can happen), this remains a genuinely hilarious work.  A final mention should be made of Toole's mother 'Thelma' whose steadfast belief in her son's work and determination made it possible for the book to be published. Toole would have been another forgotten wannabe writer but for her quest to accomplish her son's dream. The best tribute one can pay to Toole (and indeed his mother too) is to give this book a try, not just for him but for all such authors who due to the vagaries of life haven't got their recognition or did get it belatedly.