Whenever I stumble over references to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces out in the wild, they always seem to refer to it as a comedy, or at least as a very funny book. This doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think I could say that I enjoyed this book, but it enthralled me in a circus clown sort of a way. All the humor, all the themes and characterizations—and everything else, in fact—relied heavily on the grotesque.
The closest comparisons I can make are to Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. All three stories have similarly bloated tones, but meaningfully bloated, the way a corpse on a beach is bloated. All three entangle bizarre subplots and seemingly haphazard character motivations that actually have their own internal logic, drawing them into a conclusion that feels inevitable but still purposefully leaves the reader frustrated and unsatisfied.
This book does have its hilarious moments—I think there were two lines in the whole thing that made me snort out loud—but the reason I say this isn’t a funny book is because the humor is always secondary, a biproduct. It all stems from the author making observations about real people in the real world, then exaggerating them for effect. It’s satire, basically, and, though satire and comedy often get treated as interchangeable, they aren’t the same thing.
I also don’t think satire is superior to comedy for being more directly rooted in the “real world,” despite what the forward to A Confederacy of Dunces says. If anything, satiric books like this one are less likely to have “real” characters. All the characters in this book exist as reactions to people the author observed. Mockery is at the heart of them, not humanity.
That’s not an insult. The author wasn’t trying to provide anything inspirational or joyful. He was trying to point out the absurdity of certain systems and personality types that we all encounter on a daily basis, and he succeeds. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is so unlikeable that you can’t help staring at him the same way you’d stare at a waxwork. You might even pity him, though he makes it difficult. I’m not sure when this novel was written, but John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in ‘69, and the book wasn’t published for another eleven years. That means it predates the modern internet troll by a good half century. Yet Ignatius’s philosophies, attitude, and dialogue might’ve been transcribed from an online argument.
I guess that goes to show that the troll archetype is nothing new. It’s just been given a mask and a bigger megaphone. A depressing thought . . .
All the other characters are similarly fascinating yet two-dimensional—they are cardboard cutouts of personality types. The author’s biggest problem stems from this. He mocks the tendency of people like Ignatious and his girlfriend, Myrna, to co-opt social causes for selfish ends, showing the ways they treat others as disposable tools, but then he turns around and does the same thing. Marginalized characters appear in this book, but only as stereotypes and punchlines, just like everyone else. I know there’s more to it than that, but I’m not the best qualified person to critique this aspect of the story, and I’m not trying to write a critique, anyway, just a record of my thoughts and feelings. So here’s my final thought:
In my opinion, this book’s greatest accomplishment lies in deconstructing the myth of the lone intellectual genius: a man (because these sorts of characters are usually depicted as men) misunderstood by the uncivilized age in which he lives, put upon by those around him, driven to despair. Ignatious considers himself to be such a man, and the narrative does not treat him kindly for it. Ironic, then, that people tend to look at the author in the same martyred light, even going so far as to imagine that he might not have committed suicide if those idiots in the publishing industry had only grasped what he was trying to show them . . .
(I’m obviously speaking ironically. Publishing people, I do not think you’re idiots. Please publish me.)