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When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life
August 22, 2010 12:45 PM   Subscribe

john Kennedy Toole was an American novelist from New Orleans, Louisiana, best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Joe Sanford directed a documentary about the departed writer, John Kennedy Toole: the omega point

Previously on Confederacy of Dunces


I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.
~ I.J.R.
posted by nola (49 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really, really want to get into Dunces, but I find Ignatius to be so jawdroppingly unbearable that I (calmly and gently) put the book down after the bar scene in the very beginning. Does he grow tolerable, in any way, as a character? Does he become less terribly unlikeable? I hate the idea that I can't read what I've heard is an amazing and hilarious book because I personally dislike the protagonist. This really has never happened before; I've gone through Glamorama, hooked on every page, for instance. Help? Anyone?
posted by griphus at 12:54 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


He doesn't get any better, but you get to spend a lot of time with the other characters and join them in their misery. It also becomes something of a madcap farce, wherein multiple plotlines interact and build to a head, which gives you something else to root for besides Ignatius.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:03 PM on August 22, 2010


I've gone through Glamorama, hooked on every page, for instance.

Now that is a sentence I never expected to hear, ever.
posted by inoculatedcities at 1:21 PM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Griphus: I didn't like it initially, but I forced myself to keep going. I didn't like the rest of it either.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:22 PM on August 22, 2010 [12 favorites]


Does he grow tolerable, in any way, as a character? Does he become less terribly unlikeable?

I really don't know how to answer that. It depends on the reader really, for me he is a wonderful tragic-comic character. He is an ideologue who will not bend to anyone nor compromise. The thing that is delightful about him is his singular dogma that can only be his, because he has cooked it up out of obscure probably subconscious origins and he makes the world around him subject to this convictions. He is a very post post modern anti-hero. I love him because he is the 30% you read about in polling data that are bound by nothing more than their personal crazy.

Ignatius is very cathartic for me personally, because when I read about the Tea Party for instance, it all starts to make sense in a cosmic way. I do understand that some folks don't enjoy him though, but for me it's a pure delight.
posted by nola at 1:25 PM on August 22, 2010 [13 favorites]


griphus: eventually I had that kind of mental turn - the kind I don't think you can force - where I realized I wasn't supposed to like Ignatius in any way, shape, or form, and after that the book became enjoyable. It's a strange choice, a completely unlikable "protagonist", but it works for what it's supposed to be.
posted by komara at 1:26 PM on August 22, 2010


Ignatius was just born a few decades too early.

He'd be a power user on Wikipedia, a moderator on a Dwarf Fortress forum, and head commander of the most powerful fleet in Eve.
posted by codacorolla at 1:29 PM on August 22, 2010 [26 favorites]


Does he grow tolerable, in any way, as a character? Does he become less terribly unlikeable?

He doesn't get better. But in the next chapter or so, he gets a LOT worse. Fortunately that's temporary, so relative to THAT he gets better.
posted by DU at 1:34 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, I get that you're not supposed to like-like him, but I just don't find him entertaining or amusing. I think from what everyone is saying so far that I may have to write the book off as "good, but not for me." Which is a shame, but hey, whaddaya gonna do.

...at least now I'm not going to gape (as hard) at people who tell me they "couldn't" read Illuminatus!. Oh, and Glamorama was a hedonistic and totally original blast at 19, inoculatedcities. I doubt I'd be able to get through it -- or Rules of Attraction, which I adored even more -- today.
posted by griphus at 1:40 PM on August 22, 2010


I hate the idea that I can't read what I've heard is an amazing and hilarious book because I personally dislike the protagonist.

He's thoroughly unlikable. Perhaps the least likable character every created. If, at any moment, you felt any affection for him, or sympathy, it would ruin the humor of the book. The comedy, which is crafted with clockwork perfection, relied on Ignatius being a force of needless chaos. He is the embodiment of Fortuna's Wheel, spinning downward.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:42 PM on August 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


Personally I really like Glamorama and I don't know why anyone doesn't.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2010


"Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins."
posted by gordie at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll grant that Ignatius is a brilliantly drawn character, but the minority and gay characters are so thoroughly stereotyped that I don't think the novel has aged well. In the "funniest book ever" category it's Hitchhiker's in a walk for me.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:59 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can only assume people with a vehement dislike for Glamorama did not make it past the first half. Or, if they did, got turned off by the grotesque violence in the second (albeit why you're reading post-American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis while packing a distaste for grotesque violence is wholly beyond me.) That first half is by far more vacuous than anything I have ever read before or after that was not sold as a Rite Aid impulse buy. Obviously that's the point but, like Dunces I guess, the technique may be too good.
posted by griphus at 1:59 PM on August 22, 2010


I'd agree that you're never supposed to like him, but I'd disagree that you never feel any affection for him. That final scene always makes me smile.
posted by gordie at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2010


I really, really want to get into Dunces, but I find Ignatius to be so jawdroppingly unbearable that I (calmly and gently) put the book down after the bar scene in the very beginning. Does he grow tolerable, in any way, as a character?

For me, he doesn't get better, but everyone around him gets worse and worse until he really is the sane one in the end, and you're cheering him "Run! Run!"

I don't fully understand Ignatious J. Reilly, but I think he's one of the greatest protagonists ever created precisely because he's so despicable on the surface, but really a renaissance thinker, underneath. I look forward to years of growing a better understanding, as I think this book was layers and layers deep, and I've only begun to crack it after 2 passes.

I think it's really a satirical masterpiece -- one of the 10 best American novels of the 20th century, from my (relatively ignorant) perspective. Looking forward to the linked video.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:11 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's also a goddam shame that a real director and a real actor (I envision Coen Bros. & John Goodman) haven't made a film adaptation.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:15 PM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


The movie was almost made with Will Ferrell as Ignatius. *shudders*
posted by vapidave at 2:31 PM on August 22, 2010


The black "vagran" is stereotyped? Tell me why you think that. He's constantly trying to undermine his boss at the strip club, talks back, has a great sense of the absurd, etc. What's stereotypically black about that--for today, much less what was typical of books and films at the time? The gay character, all we see of him is surface level, but he's just there to drive the farce along--and I could find you many, many gay people who come off the same way during ridiculous public events here, where all you see of them, and everyone else, is surface level and showiness. OTOH, he does get POd at Ignatius, so we see some non-role-playing/surface level emotion there.
posted by raysmj at 2:33 PM on August 22, 2010


The "vagran" is modern day terms is something akin a more subversive and often-subtle version of the Jet Blue Dude. He's nobody's Sambo, he's nobody's Magic Negro, he's not shuffling along or sucking up to massa, nor hap-hap-happy all the time. He's a singular character.
posted by raysmj at 2:40 PM on August 22, 2010


I read the book in high school and loved it despite cringing at some of its datedness. Everything was just so over-the-top; the characters were filled with what seemed like normal human foibles that had been left in a petrie dish to grow and mutate.

Then I met someone who loved Confederacy of Dunces because he so deeply identified with Ignatius J. Reilly. "Yes! I'm superior to everyone else around me, too! My mom, with whom I live, mistreats me horribly, too!" Now the book is absolutely unreadable to me. Knowing that Ignatius J. Reilly isn't an exaggeration, but someone who can exist out in the real world, makes me want to fling that book into the sun.

I never want to read that book again, but I think that my visceral reaction to the character speaks to its greatness.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 2:56 PM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I really, really want to get into Dunces, but I find Ignatius to be so jawdroppingly unbearable that I (calmly and gently) put the book down after the bar scene in the very beginning.

Griphus, I did exactly the same problem, but I had it worse -- I didn't just find Ignatius unlikeable. My problem was that he reminded me IN EXCRUTIATING DETAIL about one of my evil ex-boyfriends. (And I mean EXCRUTIATING -- the pompous highbrow language, the living with his mother, the niche interest in medieval history, even the flatulence. ...Yeah. I dated him. My only defense was that "it was a low point in my life.")

But that also made me give up on the book several times by the time of the bar scene. And yet, one time I just grit my teeth and plowed through. And...yes, I did find it getting better. I think that what happened was we started meeting a whole host of other equally bizarre and flawed characters, but they were all flawed in different ways and all equally as "real", and in time the stage just got busy enough to lessen the blow of "ew omigod I'm reading about M" and let me enjoy the writing itself.

Give it a shot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:58 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fair enough, raysmj, Jones is a rounded character, as opposed to, say, Dorian Greene.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:59 PM on August 22, 2010


Knowing that Ignatius J. Reilly isn't an exaggeration, but someone who can exist out in the real world, makes me want to fling that book into the sun.

Oh he's real alright, I roomed with him for a year and a half.
posted by nola at 3:05 PM on August 22, 2010


I found some ridiculous "academic" article online that suggested that the author fails to see that gay men could really be organized for political change, as they would with the Stonewall riots. I think people who write that sort of thing just don't get the book. We don't see much of Greene beyond the surface level, yes, but ... Really, what people other than the 30 percent crazy mentioned earlier would have seen Ignatius' political appeals as anything other than ridiculous? It's great that they're treated as high camp at first, then seen as tedious and boring. What insane person would be expecting the Stonewall riots after Ignatius talked to a group of gay men?
posted by raysmj at 3:13 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, so the linked film is just a trailer -- how/where do we see the full thing?
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:24 PM on August 22, 2010


Yeah, rereading my post I can see I didn't make clear there is only a clip from the film. As to where one could see the full film, I'm still looking myself. If I find anything, I'll post it here.
posted by nola at 3:29 PM on August 22, 2010


"Does he become less terribly unlikeable?"

He's not someone you're intended to enjoy, but rather to take delight in the perversity of his thought -- recognizable, yet alien, and totally dysfunctional -- and the comedy that ensues from his attempting to navigate the world from his frame of reference. The comedy is like intellectual pratfalls, and, at the same time, they lampoon most social norms and conventions. For me, this was a good time. I laughed out loud, disturbing others nearby, which doesn't happen to me very often with books. I'm going to read it again soon.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:30 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Mental Wimp I too was laughing out loud when first reading this book, something I can't remember ever doing with any other book, except for maybe 1984. Funniest book ever, the part where O'brien pulls Whinston's teeth out in front of a grimy mirror, comic gold.
posted by nola at 3:37 PM on August 22, 2010


Oh, my valve!

Ignatius is probably my favorite character of all the fiction I've ever read. I've read CoD about 4 times now and it never, ever fails to make me laugh out loud. Ignatius is a boor and a fool and a complete ass - and funny as hell. God, I love this book.

("He'd be a power user on Wikipedia, a moderator on a Dwarf Fortress forum, and head commander of the most powerful fleet in Eve." Genius!)
posted by tristeza at 4:07 PM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


I have to say I'm with the crowd that finds it unpleasant at best. I made it through once on sheer stubbornness, and have tried twice more, and I just find it tiresome. But I acknowledge that I am clearly missing something.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:17 PM on August 22, 2010


True story: This book got into my head so badly that my own stomach valve did not work properly for about two weeks after reading Confederacy.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:25 PM on August 22, 2010


You all might try The Neon Bible, his bildungsroman written when he was 16. Published of couse on the back of the publicity, but in fact it's a lot better than you might expect. ANd it's relatively short.

And unlike Confederacy, it has been made into a movie
posted by IndigoJones at 5:26 PM on August 22, 2010


Here in Atlanta, we're getting the treat of Confederacy as a play. (Warning: Video)
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:47 PM on August 22, 2010


Well, what I liked about Ignatious is that he did live in a different time.
posted by ovvl at 6:19 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate the idea that I can't read what I've heard is an amazing and hilarious book because I personally dislike the protagonist.

I feel the same way about Catcher in the Rye, but there's no accounting for taste so use it to your advantage! :)
posted by rhizome at 6:36 PM on August 22, 2010


I really loved Jones in Confederacy of Dunces. Toole's descriptions of the clouds of smoke surrounding him are evocative, almost poetic. I immediately loved this book (read it in my early 20s); then re-read in my mid-30s expecting my estimation of it to have suffered in the interim, having read so many great books in the meantime. And, shockingly, I found it better and more satisfying during the later read.

That said, it does seem to be one of those things that you either love or you hate. I don't know anyone who has read it and not reacted strongly to it.
posted by Mister_A at 7:13 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is of interest:

An English instructor named Cory MacLauchlin is writing a critical biography of John Kennedy Toole. There looks to be some interesting background on his blog.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:43 PM on August 22, 2010


Also.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:51 PM on August 22, 2010


I hate the idea that I can't read what I've heard is an amazing and hilarious book because I personally dislike the protagonist. This really has never happened before;

In a completely different way, I had a similar experience with Thomas Covenant. I did make it through the first book, but I could never shake off my disgust with the protagonist and narrator for something he does near the beginning. If you've read it you know exactly what I'm talking about. I never bothered with the rest of the books, even though plenty of people I trust tell me they're amazing. I'm not sure why that book bothered me more than the plenty of other works I've read where the protagonist does horrible things.
posted by kmz at 10:33 PM on August 22, 2010


I think the book would be ruined if it was ever turned into a movie because the possibilities of terrible casting choices are endless; I can imagine:

Doris Roberts as Mrs. Reilly
Chris Rock as Jones
Cameron Diaz as Lana Lee
Selena Gomez as Darlene
Michael Cera as Officer Mancuso

and the final coffin nail would be Nick Jonas as Ignatius ("that'll get the young crowd in!").
posted by dzaz at 3:48 AM on August 23, 2010


It's quite comforting to read that I am not alone in my inability to get through the book. I prize humor in fiction and was eager to read Confederacy but... ack ack.. I choked on it. It is so close to me at this moment, I could literally reach out and touch it; it's shelved between Rope Burns by F. X. Toole and Complete Short Stories by Mark Twain.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:20 AM on August 23, 2010


I just don't find him entertaining or amusing.

I think Confederacy is an intensely local book, too. The way New Orleans was is a large part of the book's charm and it's likely to be lost on a reader unfamiliar with the city. A lot of the humor--or a lot of what I laughed at, at least--lies in Ignatius' disastrous encounters with very ordinary New Orleans' institutions. Lacking some first-hand familiarity with the region, I think the reader is likely to see Ignatius as more annoying and less as tragically comic.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:06 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I didn't like it initially, but I forced myself to keep going. I didn't like the rest of it either.
posted by straw man special at 8:03 AM on August 23, 2010


Doris Roberts as Mrs. Reilly
Chris Rock as Jones
Cameron Diaz as Lana Lee
Selena Gomez as Darlene
Michael Cera as Officer Mancuso


My valve just slammed shut.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:23 AM on August 23, 2010


Who the hell is Doris Roberts?
posted by Mister_A at 9:58 AM on August 23, 2010


@kmz You are not alone in disliking Thomas Covenant.

http://news.ansible.co.uk/plotdev.html

"The Well-Tempered Plot Device" by Nick Lowe.
2. Clench Racing

This is a social and competitive sport, that can be played over and over with renewed pleasure. Playing equipment currently on the market restricts the number of players to six, but the manufacturers may yet issue the series of proposed supplements to raise the maximum eventually to nine.

The rules are simple. Each player takes a different volume of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and at the word "go" all open their books at random and start leafing through, scanning the pages. The winner is the first player to find the word "clench". It's a fast, exciting game – sixty seconds is unusually drawn-out – and can be varied, if players get too good, with other favourite Donaldson words like wince, flinch, gag, rasp, exigency, mendacity, articulate, macerate, mien, limn, vertigo, cynosure.... It's a great way to get thrown out of bookshops. Good racing!
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:46 PM on August 23, 2010


Doris Roberts aka the nagging mom on "Everyone Loves Raymond."
posted by dzaz at 2:46 PM on August 23, 2010


Love Confederacy of Dunces. I'm generally not at all interested in authors, singers, etc. and didn't like the tone of documentary's introduction, but if it makes its way to PBS I'll give it a try.

But the book. Incredible. The writing is superb. The story a structural masterpiece, and the characters perfectly comic. Ignatius' time at Levy Pants was especially memorable for me.

Sad that Toole took his own life. For those who knew and loved him extremely unfortunate of course, but sad for readers too.
posted by juiceCake at 7:32 PM on August 23, 2010


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