August 2002 Archives
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES: THE END?
Ignatius J. Reilly. Have you ever met anyone quite like him before in the pages of a book? I know I haven't; and I probably won't forget him anytime soon, either. He was unique, and uniquely over-the-top, but for me, he was never a cartoon. For all his weirdnesses and exaggeratedness, he never struck me as a mere invention; he rang true. Which is why, I think, I found myself relating to Ignatius no matter how much I disliked him, more so than I'd care to admit.
At one point, not too many pages from the end, Ignatius’s mother says this to him:
“You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being.”
How absolutely true. And what kept him from learning how to be, let alone from becoming, a human being? In my opinion, what held him back was also his primary motivation: fear.
What really convinced me of this was seeing him seemingly begin (just begin, mind you) to “come alive” as he finally ventured out of the city, possibly farther than he’d ever traveled before, at the very end of the book. Afraid to venture out of the comfortable, familiar environs in which he’d spent all his life (with the lone exception of that bus trip to/taxi drive back from Baton Rouge), he only did so at the story’s end because he was essentially forced out by circumstances (his pending institutionalization). But because he took that step outside of his comfort zone, he began to benefit within the very first hours of his journey.
We have to change to grow; we have to deal with the unknown and other unpleasant realities in order to mature. But Ignatius refused to do that. And for that reason, he lived in a prison of his own making, subjecting everyone around him, most unfortunately for them, to the unpleasant results of his self-imposed incarceration.
He cried “perversion!” and “abortion!” etc., deriding people and things around him, when his truly was the aborted life. His existence was a perverted one; he resisted growing up, so he grew increasingly inward. That’s not normal. I believe he really was heading toward insanity, however much his mother may have been committing him to a state hospital for her convenience, or by the author for sheer comic effect.
In closing, let me quote the last four paragraphs of the book…
. . .
Now that Fortuna had saved him from one cycle, where would she spin him now? The new cycle would be so different from anything he had ever known.
Myrna prodded and shifted the Renault through the city traffic masterfully, weaving in and out of impossibly narrow lanes until they were clear of the last twinkling streetlight of the last swampy suburb. Then they were in darkness in the center of the salt marshes. Ignatius looked out at the highway marker that reflected their headlights. U.S. 11. The marker flew past. He rolled down the window an inch or two and breathed the salt air blowing in over the marshes from the Gulf.
As if the air were a purgative, his valve opened. He breathed again, this time more deeply. The dull headache was lifting.
He stared gratefully at the back of Myrna’s head, at the pigtail that swung innocently at his knee. Gratefully. How ironic, Ignatius thought. Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet moustache.
. . .
That, coming after what we’ve read before, is one of the sweetest endings to a story I’ve ever read. Because it’s full of possibility. And who would’ve thought Ignatius could ever really change? But that’s the very real possibility that I hear, clearly, from reading that passage. And it warms my heart, and makes me care about the big galoot.
That’s how the ending totally changed my impression of the book as a whole. For me, it puts it all into perspective. It’s almost as if Ignatius, in reaching out affectionately to Myrna (not that she’s aware of his gesture at that point, I don’t think), in seeing and appreciating someone for who they are, instead of just complaining about them or thinking of how he can use them to get what he wants, is for the very first time in the book -- and, presumably, for the first time in his life -- moving beyond the caricature of a life he’s been living, and becoming human before our eyes. Or is, at least, venturing into that (for him) uncharted territory for the very first time.
So I see the book’s ending not so much as epitaph, but as commencement. And seeing it that way gives me a much deeper appreciation for the book as a whole, and a much fonder affection for it, than I ever expected to have until I got to those very last hopeful pages.
How ‘bout you?
And also, please feel free to discuss anything else that I’ve failed to bring up this week. I know there’s a lot.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES: IT’S A FABLE, RIGHT?
Like Barbara, I’m champing at the bit to get into a deeper discussion about Ignatius J. Reilly, the outrageous, larger-than-life buffoon protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces. But I find that in order to understand him, the other characters in the book, and what happens (and doesn’t happen) to all of them, that I have to put the book into some kind of context within the literary world.
I’m talking, of course, about calling the book a fable. A few definitions of “fable” include…
“A story about legendary persons and exploits.” (American Heritage Dictionary)
“A feigned story or tale, intended to instruct or amuse; a fictitious narration intended to enforce some useful truth or precept; an apologue.” and “Any story told to excite wonder.” (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary)
“A deliberately false or improbable account.” (Word Net, Princeton University)
Is that how you see the book? And if so, does that make a difference for you in terms of how you see the characters -- not to mention how you feel about them -- and account for what happens in the story? Or do you see the book differently? What would you call it, or how would you describe it?
Thinking of the book as a fable -- a surreal account, if you will, where all the laws that apply to us in real life don’t necessarily impinge upon the book’s characters -- enables me to make sense of certain things, perhaps foremost among them what seemed to be the absence of any real threat of serious harm or death befalling the book’s characters.
As meanly as he treated some people -- his mother, Myrna, Abelman (to whom he wrote the forged letter from Levy Pants), among others (well, okay, among… everybody, I guess!) -- I never had the impression that Ignatius posed any true danger to them. Bumps and bruises were suffered, certainly, and tears were shed from one character's mistreatment of another, but no one was killed or, I felt, ever really in danger of being killed. (Not to mention, in keeping with the idea of the story as a fable and fables tending to offer life lessons, that what justice was meted out certainly seemed deserved; most characters, by the end, got their comeuppance. But I'd like to wait until tomorrow, perhaps, to go fully into Toole's motivations for writing this book, and what "lessons" he hoped to pass along by it, if any; for now, I'd prefer we focus on the "what", rather than the "why".) It seems to me that no one was ever hurt by anything Ignatius did or failed to do, with the obvious exception, of course, of himself.
Seeing the book as a fable is also, I think, why I had less of a problem going along for the ride with Ignatius J. Reilly than some of the rest of us did. It’s an interesting matter to try to puzzle through: How can characters who are so “larger-than-life” also seem, in certain important ways, so true to life? This is where I think Mr. Toole earns that posthumous Pulitzer of his. What a fine line that is to walk!
For instance, he shows an uncanny ear for dialogue and dialects and yet, at the same time, he puts in his characters’ mouths speeches that are nothing if not theatrical -- overblown, exaggerated, melodramatic. Yes, certainly, in some part, that’s who these characters are: eccentrics, every one of them, given to hyperbole. But still, I marvel at Toole’s ability to totally suspend my disbelief from the beginning, draw me into the company of these characters, and compel me to take this journey with them wherever it would lead, without ever really stumbling over the overt theatricality of the dialogue.
If you’re buying into the idea of Dunces as fable, any other examples you’d like to offer of how Toole successfully bridges the gap between fantasy and reality would be most welcome. And, of course, if you reject characterizing the book as a fable, and see it as something else, I’d love to hear your take on it -- 'cause my opinion is just that, an opinion, and I'm frankly more interested in yours.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES: ADMIRED BY SOME, REVILED BY OTHERS; LOVED BY FEW?
Hey, everybody, here’s what I’d like to do in terms of further discussion: Since there are a few people who aren’t quite done with the book, but who plan on finishing it tonight (Tuesday), I’d like to wait until tomorrow (Wednesday) before I post a new topic for discussion that’s specifically about the characters and story of A Confederacy of Dunces, so that everybody can get into it on more or less an equal footing.
(And a word to those of you who haven’t yet finished the book, but intend to: As I mentioned to Mary in our discussion yesterday, the very, very last pages of the book made an enormous difference for me in how I see the book, and in how much I ended up liking it overall. It’s because you may have a similar reaction that is the main reason I'm posting a more general [but no less relevant] topic for discussion today. Capische? And yes, if it’s any encouragement, that also means that I think sticking it out ‘til the end is very much worth it. So... keep going! The end's in sight!)
In the meantime, though, since some of us have found the book to be abrasive and difficult, if not downright detestable (who picked this book, anyway? oh, yeah), can you think of other books or movies you’ve read or seen that you had a similar reaction to? Or, can you think of any books or movies that you liked, or even loved, even though they had a protagonist or protagonists as objectionable (or thereabouts ;) as Ignatius J. Reilly? And in either case, why?
The first movie that comes to my mind as one that I really hated, for some of the very reasons that Jaynee said she hated Dunces, is Thelma and Louise. I loathed the two title characters; I found them so repulsive and reprehensible and inaccessible as people that I found it impossible to will myself into taking interest in their story. I just wanted to have nothing to do with them.
Mary’s inaugural pick for our beloved book blog, though, had the opposite effect on me. For the most part, I thought the protagonists of Invisible Monsters were awful; yet I happily went along for the ride with them, eager to see what trouble they’d get into next as they went from one misadventure to another.
And I’m not sure that I can explain why I had such a different take on these two stories, one a movie, one a book, putting aside their obvious differences and focusing in on the issue of why we choose to sympathize with some protagonists, warts and all, while we refuse to do so with others. I suppose the artistry of the storyteller has something to do with it, though; in my opinion, director Ridley Scott’s and (Academy Award winning! the outrage! :) screenwriter Callie Khouri’s on-screen vision was as bleak and stark and soulless as their title characters’, er, characters, while Chuck Palahniuk’s clever, quirky, unpredictable style drew me in and compensated for (and heightened my ability to laugh at) the people populating his novel.
Closely related to this discussion is something that Kara said yesterday: "Kind of like certain movies I've seen (Requiem for a Dream definitely comes to mind), sometimes there is a difference between what I like and what I think is good -- if that makes any sense. I don't really like this book...I didn't really enjoy reading it...but I definitely think it is a good book."
Well, I think what you said makes perfect sense, Kara, and the distinction you make is one I've made many times. For instance -- and I think it's pure circumstance that they're both Steven Spielberg movies -- I greatly admired A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and Saving Private Ryan, but I can't say that I "liked", let alone "loved", either one.
In the case of the former, I find it so daunting to try to embrace a movie whose central character is a robot that I can't even wrap my head around it, let alone my heart; yet the brilliance of the manipulation going on in the film -- making a protagonist that seems human in every way, but isn't, which is a fact that the viewer must never lose sight of -- I find awe-inspiring. It's a marvelous film, but not one that's close to my heart.
And, in the case of the second Spielberg film I mentioned, the grave reality of the combat scenes, especially, as well as that of the tension experienced by the soldiers even when they're not actively fighting, keep me from emotionally embracing the movie as "a movie". I sure as hell don't want to see it again any time soon, if ever; it disturbs me profoundly. But that's exactly why I embrace it as a cultural milestone. I'm enormously grateful that I did see it, because it's helped me respect military heroes -- -particularly the everyday, regular-guy ones -- even more than I did before; and I can only applaud the genius that was able to capture that and put it on screen.
A Confederacy of Dunces: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Hello, all, and welcome to our discussion of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces! Ideally, this month, I’d like to try to let our conversation take its course and see where it leads us. I’ll be here to steer us, when necessary, so that we cover what I think are some of the points worth pondering, but for the most part, I’m going to be relying on you to chime in and, hopefully, take us in directions I wouldn’t have thought to explore on my own.
So… it’s your forum. And just to get this party started, I’ll throw out a softball and ask, did you like the book? And whether you did or not, why do you think that was? (And if you hated it -- a question I’m asking because I know at least one of us did! -- was there anything about it that you did like?)
I’ll start by saying that, yeah, I really did enjoy it. (I picked it based on its reputation, not its subject matter, by the way, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.) It made me chuckle quite a bit, and I even laughed out loud a handful of times, which doesn’t happen very often for me when I’m reading a book. And while I at first I found the story really quite straightforward, the further I got into it, the more I decided that there was a lot going on in terms of subtext -- more so than I would’ve guessed while I was still in the front half of the book.
But more on that a little later. Some of the best things I liked about the book were, first and foremost, the wonderful comic invention that is the character of Ignatius J. Reilly (how could he not be first and foremost?), and the ludicrously (and frequently, to me, howlingly funny) self-important speeches he spouted out of that jowly, almost-always-masticating mouth of his. Of course, those tirades wouldn’t have been possible had Toole not placed Ignatius into such deliciously ridiculous situations, so I have to add that I really admired his imagination in creating such a realistic absurdist landscape, with a wide range of interesting characters. Lending authority to which, in no small part, I’d venture, was Toole’s ear for dialogue and dialects, which I thought was spot-on.
Toole created a very vivid world for me, a believable one, however fantastic Ignatius at times (well, pretty much all the time) seemed. And probably because of that, I think, there was an emotional truth to the story that, as I started to mention above, became increasingly resonant for me the further I got into the story. And Toole even accomplished what I would’ve guessed to be an impossible task: at the very, very end of the book, I actually began to feel some genuine sympathy for Ignatius. And if you ask me, that’s quite a feat.
But enough of my initial thoughts on it. What did you think? Like it? Hate it? Spill.
Another new member with a "K" name?
Hello everyone or as they say here in Japan, konnichiwa. Thank you for the warm welcome. I am very excited to be a part of your group. As Mary said, I am married, have two small children, and currently live in Japan, about 30 km south of Tokyo.
I am originally from northern California, but prior to Japan, my husband and I lived near Austin. I am currently taking a break from a rather dull career path as a portfolio administrator/marketing coordinator/project manager/technical writer and enjoying my children full-time.
"What are you doing in Japan?" you might ask. Short answer: my husband's career. Long answer: he is an orthopaedic surgeon and took a three-year "scholarship" from the Navy to pay for part of medical school. Since we were stuck paying back the time anyway, we decided to make the most of it and go international. Our first choise was Rota, Spain, but after a year here in Japan, I think that Fortuna was kind to us. Japan is wonderful.
Unfortunately my Japanese is terrible, but the advantage to that is I never watch television, which gives me plenty of time to read. I love discussing books. I have been a member of two reading groups, but both have been strictly female. I am looking forward to a male perspective to provide a better balance in both discussion and reading selection. As I mentioned to Mary, I lost interest in my last discussion group when it became “Oprah-fied”. Thank you for welcoming me to your group. I look forward to participating actively in your lively and incisive discussions.
As you can see by our book "to do" list at the left, I've turned Don Quixote into the November/December selection because:
1. it's a behemoth, and
2. it’ll be the holidays.
At this point, the discussion is tentatively scheduled for the second week of December.
After we finish going through A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the books will be falling off our list. Since I’d like to keep at least three future books over there, anyone interested in volunteering for January? I know it’s a ways off, but I thought someone might be willing to step up to the plate.
Glad You Could Join Us!
Can we handle another new member? Of course!
Please join me in welcoming Karen to the fold. Karen is currently living in Japan (we’ve gone international!) with her husband and two children. As a person who’s passionate about reading and writing, she’s also looking forward to joining our online family of book lovers.
Karen found our site through Katespot and was particularly impressed by the thoughtful debate between Rich and Jeff over last month’s selection, Noir. All three of our recruiters are doing a great job as usual.
Although Karen has already read A Confederacy of Dunces, she doesn’t have her copy with her in Japan. Despite this, perhaps we’ll still be able to persuade her to jump in on the discussion. Comments from someone who’s had a bit of time to reflect on the book ought to be extremely insightful in helping us dissect and digest it.
Oh my word.
I know it's a few days before the actual discussion is to begin, but I just had to say that this morning I took the book out of my bag and put it away. I was about halfway through it and each and every page was a struggle. I didn't enjoy the writing style, I didn't enjoy the storyline, and I sure didn't enjoy Ignatius as a lead character. A few weeks ago I posted a picture of the book at my website when I started reading it. Someone emailed me recently that it was her favorite book. I emailed her back and asked her if she was on crack. She said that she only remembers she was in a dark time in her life and the book appealed to that snarky evil hate-the-world attitude she had back then.
Well, I'm a good person. I like the world, generally. Is that why I hate this book? I posted again today at my website that I hated this book, and a few people have posted their comments that they TOO hated this book. So I know I'm not alone.
Some love it with a passion and others hate it just as much - I'll be curious to see what the general consensus is when it comes time to discuss the book. Nothing against Jeff's choice - I think it'll stir up some interesting debate about ethics and morals, etc. - but WOW I'm glad that's over.
Also, if anyone wants to email me and give me the quick upshot of how the book ends, that would be great. I've no desire to read the rest, but I do want to know if everyone gets their just desserts.
This Month's Discussion
Went to the library. Checked out this month's pick. Have read half the book. Can't wait to see the questions for discussion on this one! Hoo boy.
Thanks for the welcome!
Hey everyone! Thanks for the warm welcome! As Mary said, I am a graduate student and I read a ton. I hate finishing a book and having no one to talk to about it, so this is great! I am currently studying Special Education at the University of Georgia. I also have most of an MA in Religion from the same institution. Most of what I read is for school, so I am very excited to have somewhere to discuss my non-assigned readings. Cheers all - and thanks again for the welcome!
A Topic for Debate
Was browsing FoxNews.com and came upon a very interesting article.
The gist is a guy by the name of B.R. Myers, who's written A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, and I'm curious what people have to say about that here.
In the wake of the Noir discussion, it's pretty obvious that I like a certain amount of texture to my fiction, and anyone who's read my posts knows that I like my words multisyllabic, my sentences wordy, and my phrases occasionally tenuously connected. ;-)
Still, Noir garnered a rather mixed set of reactions, mainly (I'm guessing) because of stuff like texture, and Jeff actually laid it out: in his opinion Jeter was trying to cover for a lack of ability with deluges of images and clumsily overblown prose.
So what does everyone think of the Myers' criticisms (bearing in mind that no one here has had a chance to read the book, including me)? Do we want clarity or workmanship, is it artistry we should be looking for, which is more (and less) than either?
Room for One More?
That’s right. We’ve got another newbie. If you don’t already know Erin, you can find out more about her through one of her many blogs:
jackasses & stalkers
gc golf journal
The booknook hasn’t been getting much play lately, but I’m sure she’ll have plenty of updates in store for the future now that she’s a member of our club.
In brief, Erin lives in New Jersey, is a web designer, is getting ready to participate in the Avon 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk this October, is an on again/off again member of Weight Watchers, gets IMed regularly by weirdoes, has just taken up golf (which is the only sport I play since you can smoke, drink, and drive all at the same time), and enjoys reading a good book.
Due to an unexpected change in my host's user agreement, I've had to upgrade our version of Movable Type and convert our database files over to MySQL. For the most part, you shouldn't notice changes except for a brief message that you'll get when publishing a post. However, please let me know if anything seems a bit wonky.
Wow! We’ve got another new recruit. Danielle has decided to join our little club because she’s an avid reader and, like the rest of us, has been wanting a forum in which to discuss what she’s read. She’s also a graduate student and is looking for interesting books to read outside of her usual course work. I’m sure we’ll be able to meet both of those needs.
Danielle stumbled onto our site via this path: Gigglechick, Katespot, and then here. With this, Kate has joined Jeff in the illustrious ranks of being a recruiter for BookBlog.
Hi there, noticed Kara was kind enough to intro herself so thought I should chime in before we start our August discussion.
My name is Hunter Harwood, and I am a friend of Rich Miller. I found the bookblog through his Brain Squeezings, and have decided that I should join this merry band of readers. I love to read but do not do it often enough, this is the sort of motivation I need to read titles I might otherwise miss. I typically read programming-related books, occasional science or history, sci-fi/fantasy and the odd espionage thriller. I also voraciously consume fiction and non-fiction works in my car via audio books - just finished The Regulators by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) and three abridged WEB Griffin books in a collection. Good thing my wife and I work for a book retailer (Books A Million). She's the CIO and I'm a lowly consultant building an Intranet portal for the finance dept. I've been programming since 1985 and have really enjoyed it. I also have a moderate electronic gaming habit, just as Rich. ;^)
My family and I moved down here to the Birmingham, AL area from near Annapolis, MD due to (1) Crown Books going belly up, where my wife was CIO and I was a lowly consultant as well, and (2) my wife landing the position at Books A Million. So far so good, although I think I am just going to stay away from the local delicacy of boiled peanuts, thank you very much.