Confederacy of Dunces is a book from the late 1960’s, set in New Orleans. I first heard of it from the writer/speaker/internet guy Merlin Mann, who uses a line from it as his Twitter ‘handle’, differentiating his presence on the mighty microblogging service from his more professional website, 43folders.com.
As I said in my last post, I’m trying to read my way out of the sci-fi genre. More accurately, I’m trying to expand my knowledge of literature, and as I consistently find Merlin Mann’s web writing approachable and interesting, I wanted to see what sort of book he find inspiring. I came across my copy by accident in Black Flame Books – after guiltily buying another SF book to add to my collection, I turned to the non-genre piles, grabbed the first book at random, and it happened to be Confederacy. Score!
Confederacy is a book that belongs wholly to a subsection of American literature, the humorous look at American society. Other authors working in that subsection might be Pynchon, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace, all of whom have written books that use wry humour to reflect on contemporary American life. I have to say “might be” because I’m just not an expert, and I don’t have a lot of literary knowledge about American writers.
I was prepared to not enjoy this book. I’d brought it on a whim, and I have plenty of other books that I could have switched to if I had found it tedious. But much to my surprise, I enjoyed it and found myself reading it quicker than I thought I would. It’s main strength is the way the author, John Kennedy Toole, manages to create a wide range of interesting characters, and yet keeps them as separate individuals. There is no sense in this book of the individual characters merging into one, as can happen with some novels.
Not one of the incidental characters seems to drop in to serve a plot function, unlike, say Paul Coelho or other Magical Realism authors. By using New Orleans as a backdrop, perhaps Toole has a easier time of it – the city is famously strange – but instead of the shorthand “N’awlins” that you see in films such as Easy Rider, it is the strangeness of any small community. Everybody knows each other, and the interconnected actions of the characters drive the plot in an understandable manner that actually makes sense.
Despite the tone of the book, it does have a happy ending – not that I’m against sad or sorrowful books, I just don’t want to wade through a few hundred pages of misery to find that all the characters die in the end. In fact, the ending is almost setting the book up for a sequel, but one of the saddest things about this book is that it was published posthumously, eleven years after the death by suicide of the author.
The fact that the book is so good, is commonly regarded as so good, and yet the author never saw any acclaim for his work is very thought provoking. Like Infinite Jest, it’s a book that today’s leading internet writers and commentators are really keen on. Are these long-form texts the product of the same drive to making jokes that we see in the writing of Gruber and Mann? As extremely short-form texts start to dominate – shorter even than blogging – will we lose the future novelists who would make us laugh in a way that questions our short-termist society?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but reading Confederacy of Dunces made me want to both read and write more. That’s surely a sign of a good book, right? I’d advise you to pick it up if you were looking for something new to read, because in it’s dense text we see the sort of authorship that might be dying out now.