By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is like a brilliantly conceived Rube Goldberg machine with a rude, delusional, nihilistic reactionary named Ignatius J. Reilly serving as its primary catalyst. He is a mustached, rotund 30-year-old man who despises work, has delusions of grandeur, delusions of victimization, delusions of
intellectual superiority, and dresses
like a bum. He is also stubborn, rude, bitter, and pessimistic. “I refuse to
'look up',” he tells mother at one point in the novel. “Optimism nauseates me.
It is perverse. Since man's fall, his proper position in the universe has been
one of misery.”
He may sound like a perverse millennial, but the novel is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s—at a time when cities were weird because there was a surplus of amoral weirdos like Ignatius still there. It was before “they,” as Ignatius proclaims, managed to fill the asylums with “poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.” He is not a communist, an anarchist, or an ideologue in any way. He's just a fat malcontent with a big mouth.
Ignatius is not a hero, nor an anti-hero. Like Don Quixote (or perhaps Walter from The Big Lebowski), he is a comedic figure who is profoundly absurd and profoundly agitated. Unlike Quixote, he is not an anachronism (though he would deny this, as his idols seem to be mostly scholars and anchorites from the Dark Ages). He is just a blundering menace who manages to both connect and terrorize about a dozen unfortunate souls who seem separated from the likes of Stella and Stanley Kowalski by blocks instead of years—though, to be fair, there are no characters as tragic as either (and certainly none even close to the likes of Blanche Dubois) in Toole's New Orleans, nor are there any tragedies that are without their ironies. The book's sense of humor comes not from creating characters that are too absurd to be real, but by mixing several realistically absurd people into one story arc without venturing into realms of total fantasy.
To describe the novel as a chronicle of unfortunate and comedic events would be to undersell it. It is arabesque depiction of New Orleans. And though it is dense and rather long, nearly every passage in the 400-page book is a necessary component to a
picture. One could say it has a good sense of geometry, as a single chance
event sets the gears of misfortune spinning until arriving at a ridiculous
denouement that sees Igatius face first in the street in front of a French
Quarter bar out of which he'd been chased by a fascist pornographer, a Latina
grifter, and a stripper whose clothes were supposed to have been ripped off by
a cockatoo. Describing any more of those assembled at this finale would be to
perhaps give too much away. Furthermore, focusing on the plot of this novel
would take up far too much time and prove distracting to some of the more
interesting aspects of the book that tie it together.
|A Confederacy of Dunces|
Some have claimed that Toole's book, which is similar in tone to Thomas Pynchon's V. and Joseph Heller's Catch 22, failed to initially impress editors because it lacked the overarching themes that the other two novels possess. This seems unfair. To me, the book did have a theme. It was largely about the interplay of fate, delusion, and guilt. The generous number of allusions to The Consolation of Philosophy, which was written while its author, Boethius, was in prison, are kind of a dead giveaway to the fate element. That Boethius was responsible for creating the popular image of the wheel of fortune and that the novel begins with a clock and regularly references Ignatius' “moribund” Mickey Mouse watch also alludes to it.
However, those who are capable of transcending fate in the book are those who believe their own delusions to such a degree that they manipulate others into believing the hubris they espouse. There is almost the suggestion that confidence can triumph over the will of the gods. To believe one's own bullshit to such a degree that others believe it too is a key to a perverse kind of salvation.
If you jump to the present, this observation seems more true today than it was when Toole was writing. America is not suffering from a shortage of people like Ignatius Reilly. This is a character who eagerly goes to movies to boo them; who obsesses over celebrities despite his hatred for them; who believes himself to be superior to others even though any conceivable metric that one could possibly employ to measure success would place him miles from any winner's circle. This is a man who still lives with his mother, who can't hold a job, who writes long-winded and nonsensical diatribes proclaiming the brilliance of a foreign past for no one, and who both seems incapable of getting over his dead dog and proclaims, “I rather respect Batman,” with the type of pomposity that one would reserve for an opinion on Petrarch or Hobbes. To have to live with him would be intolerable, but, as a reader, it is impossible to not eagerly await one of his bombastic speeches. He is an amusing train wreck.
In many regards, Ignatius Reilly is a character from and for the internet. He's not a troll. He is, instead, the type of character that made and makes the internet weird. To say “great” is a stretch. If he were alive in 1996, he would have been a nuisance that no one paid attention to. He would have aroused the ire of a few people who regularly spent their time on AOL chatrooms, but that's about it. Jump to 2002, and not a lot would have changed.
By 2006, he would have been known as the guy who wrote 10,000-word Yelp reviews of random establishments that would somehow evolve into treatises that included references to Lucretius, Maimonides, Nonnus, Tiny Toons, Boethius, Nacho Libre, Dante and Lindsay Lohan before going into a lengthy non sequitur concerning the heresies of Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, and finally returning to the issue at hand, which was that his meal at the aforementioned pizzeria “substandard” and worthy only of one and a half stars. On top of this, he would have included dozens of hyperlinks in the post, all of which would have directed you to the type of disturbing porn that you can't unsee. On top of that, most of the quotes that would have been included would have been completely made up. Perhaps most importantly of all, he would have never actually been to or ever anticipated eating at the establishment in question.
By 2009, this figure would have attracted a loyal fanbase, begun his own website and regularly tweeted insults at people whom he didn't like for reasons that were unclear. Those fans probably would have revered him for telling it like it is. They may have considered him to be knowledgeable because of his obscure references.
As of today, he would be a minor internet celebrity regularly quoted by people who are stubborn, gullible, and proudly antagonistic toward “mainstream” journalists, scientists, and theorists from a massive array of academic disciplines. He would be one of the leaders the confederacy of dunces against the elitists.
Some may call (and have called) such a comically ersatz intellectual a neoreactionary. I am inclined to see such individuals as the new breed of amoralists. These are people who are half infant, half objectivist, and profoundly dangerous. Like our new president, alt-right lunatics, and ancient astronaut theorists, this type of person is an amusing crackpot until normal people begin to take the craziness seriously.
And they have.
In an odd twist of fate, Ignatius Reilly was not an anachronism—he was a prediction.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.