Confessions of Another Common Reader

A Confederacy of Dunces – Am I the Dunce?

May16

There’s a certain kind of queasiness that accompanies not loving a book that appears to be universally raved about. What did you miss? Were you not paying attention? Is there something wrong with you? Sometimes it passes quickly, a quick flick back through the pages reaffirming your well-placed confidence in your own literary taste (I’m looking at you, One Day). Sometimes it lingers for longer, scratching away at the back of your mind like an unshiftable stone in the shoe, and this is where I find myself with A Confederacy of Dunces.

Published posthumously thanks to his mother’s unflagging commitment to seeing it in print, I’ve always seen John Kennedy Toole’s novel hailed as a comic masterpiece. Set in New Orleans, it follows the enormous Ignatius J Reilly, lazy, overeducated, staggeringly self-absorbed, and suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Ignatius is tortured by poor digestion (nothing to do with his poor diet, of course) and a slave to his “valve”. Obsessed with his own genius, he is tormented by the need to prove said genius to one Myrna Minkoff, who he met while at college and who goads him from afar with aggressive, scribbled notes describing her own successes in transforming the political landscape through the magic of sex. As he endeavours to do as little as possible in order to create a space for his literary talent to flourish and bear fruit, Ignatius blunders through New Orleans, chaos rippling outward from his searingly self-centred acts of random cruelty.

Ignatius is an unforgettable creation: utterly ruthless, addicted to medieval culture and excess verbiage, living his life at a tangent to the rest of the world. Yet I can’t laugh at him, or at any of the other equally well-drawn characters whose lives he disrupts. Partly this is a fault I’ve been noticing more and more in my own literary appreciation – a tendency to place too much emphasis on character as I read. I increasingly seem to be running the risk of mistaking characters in books for Real People, over-empathising with their suffering.

But this is also more generally true of how I feel about humour: I cannot laugh at monsters. I’ve never been able to find David Brent funny in The Office, or others of his ilk. Those with a white-hot belief in their own centrality to the universe – whether in books or in real life – inevitably damage those with who they interact. And all too often, they get away with it; their self-belief wraps around them like a cloak of invisibility, insulating them from outrage and disapproval, while others around them pick up the pieces and deal with the fallout. Being habitually a picker-up rather than a distributor of such pieces, my latent levels of resentment at this kind of behaviour are already too high to tolerate further augmentation without discomfort. I just don’t find it funny, even when it’s only make-believe.

In other words, despite no longer being in my teens or twenties, I’m still incurably romantic and idealist, and want to believe that the world should be fair. I am doomed.

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