(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The action of A Confederacy of Dunces blends such disparate elements as ribald farce, sophisticated intellectual and social satire, and realistic examination of the speech and customs of ethnic New Orleans. Binding these elements together is the magnetic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, a grossly fat, thirtyish mama’s boy and failed medieval scholar who is convinced of his own genius and of the fact that “the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Ignatius is eager to condemn any product of modern culture and technology for its “offenses against taste and decency,” its “lack of theology and geometry,” often while he is in the act of consuming it.

As the novel begins, Ignatius, a former graduate student whose one halfhearted attempt to secure a teaching position ended in a disaster that confirmed his low opinion of the modern world, is forced to go to work by his doting, alcoholic, weak-willed, but exasperated mother, who is fed up after years of supporting his “career” as a “writer.” Having caused a public disturbance in the novel’s first scene because of his outlandish dress and behavior, Ignatius bellows at the investigating patrolman, Angelo Mancuso, in his pompous diction, “Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?” His instinct is to shift blame in every circumstance and to retreat from modernity into his ivory tower—his smelly, disordered bedroom. There he is composing, on lined Big Chief tablets at a rate of “six paragraphs monthly,” what he is sure will be “a magnificent study in comparative history” exploring how, “with the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste gained ascendancy.” Quick to condemn disorder and bad taste in others, Ignatius never sees them in himself. He hoots at sex, marriage, a career, industrialization, the profit motive, and American Bandstand as gross excrescences of modern culture, but of the lot he prefers American Bandstand, which he watches every afternoon, chortling at its offenses in a loud voice.

Yet, as Ignatius often says, “the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune,” turned against him...

(The entire section is 916 words.)