“When a true genius appears you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift.
This is the fun phrase that my dad used to misquote at us whenever we banded together to shut down an idea of his. Which was often. I mean it still is often, he just doesn’t seem to say it any more which is a shame because it is an excellent saying. I think he says, “You may know a true genius by the confederacy of dunces that rail against him” which I actually like better; it seems snappier, but maybe that’s just because I’m used to it.
Anyway I often think about titles and how they relate to books and if they add any insight, or are a description, or in fact misrepresent the book in some way. Without a doubt this is my favourite book title in terms of describing the novel, matching its content and style and adding humour and insight to it overall.
A Confederacy of Dunces follows Ignatius J. Reilly who is grotesque, self aggrandising, eloquent and, as the blurb says, unhinged by the standards of normal folk. Ignatius knows that he was born in the wrong century and longs to return to the standards of the Middle Ages but instead is forced to wallow in the squalor (mmmm assonance) of his room, bemoaning the lack of taste and decency of his current period. When his mother forces him to get a job all sorts of shenanigans ensue, as Ignatius is dragged face to face with a modern world filled with politics, exploitation, pornography and conspiracy.
I loved how crafted the writing of the book was, every sentence felt balanced and sharp and utterly thought out. The care of the words compared with the lunacy of the situations that they describe is what I found the most funny (as opposed to the wacky situations themselves, which were like the painfully awkward British comedy I can’t bear to watch). It’s full of running money-as-religion metaphors, the crazy speachifying of Ignatius as well as lots of other really distinct voices ranging across age and class.
The language was so great that it made me sad that I didn’t love the book more. Ignatius was so completely painful that I wanted to reach into the book and smack him. With some really big words or something. The situations spiralled hopelessly out of control and nothing ever seemed to go right for anyone. It had a pervasive air of the empty shell of a decaying society, as in other Postmodern classics like The Crying of Lot 49, but here it was much more depressing.
So yeah, mixed feelings, but A Confederacy of Dunces is definitely worth it for the language, the political commentary and the aptness of its title.