A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

“I refuse to “look up.” Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 429 pages.
Read from February 12, 2019 to February 21, 2019.

I’ve known about this book for years because of its quirky cover and title but yet knew nothing about the witty and hilarious story within it or the tragic story of its author. Written by the editor, the prologue of this novel details the strange way this book came to exist as the editor explains how he came across what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning story.  The editor had been attempting to put off this random woman, Kennedy’s mother, who kept insisting that she has a great story for him to publish from her late son. When he is finally trapped in a corner from her persistence he accepts the manuscript anticipating he’d never read it. He devours the book an aptly publishes it with great success. John Kennedy Toole tragically committed suicide at the age of 31 leaving his mother with the manuscript of this novel. She wanted her son’s talent recognized and by getting his novel published ensured his legacy.

Ignatius is the main protagonist in this story, though as a reader you may not like him very much. He is a lazy, obese, misanthropic man-child who has some self-inflated ideas of himself. ignatiusjreillyx13j2xe Of course, his strange views of himself and the world are what make his misadventures so damn funny. Like a peculiar Don Quixote, Ignatius has his own eccentric tendencies from his outrageous slob-fashion to the idea of his “valve” and how he reacts during “stressful” situations. Yet Ignatius’ disdain for the modern world is borderline admirable and while he may view the world differently his insights aren’t always wrong and seem to tap into some lost child-like feelings that we all push aside to fit into the modern world.

“Well, I have had enough of this. I’m going into the parlour to watch the Yogi Bear program. Between wine breaks, please bring me a snack of some sort. My valve is screaming for appeasement.”

Ignatius finds himself in trouble after his mother gets into a car accident and neither of them has any money to pay off the damage. Ignatius’ mother worked hard to put him in school and has received no thanks for her efforts. Ignatius is not a dumb man but his strong views on the world and himself contradict the status quo. Ignatius, who would rather pretend to “work” on a novel while living at his mother’s home for free, refuses to work and blames his mother for many things while showing no appreciation to the woman raised him, still believes in him, and who continues puts up with him. After finally being convinced to get a job Ignatius starts his misadventures from one job to the next meeting an array of characters and situations along the way.

After reading a quarter of the book, I thought I was tired of Ignatius’ antics. He was getting on my nerves with his narcissism and the horrible way he treats his mother however, once he started working, the story turned into something amazing. I found myself rooting for Ignatius and wanting to support his outlandish ideas just to see where he would end up. The initial plot and concern about the car accident became a thing of the past as I anticipated how wonderfully Ignatius would mess and yet always find a way to get out of any situation.

The writing and character work in this novel is nothing short of brilliant and it pains me to think of the talent with lost with the author’s early passing. This book would appeal to anyway the read and loved Don Quixote or who is interested in misadventure stories with unique protagonists.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from August 31, 2018 to September 7, 2018.

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1921, Wharton’s talent has continued to be celebrated with her widely cultivated novels. I first read Wharton when I was in university with The House of Mirth, a book I did not expect to like but became enthralled with the writing style and characters.  While many of Wharton’s books are about unhappy marriages, what continues to make them so popular is Wharton’s fantastic prose as well as an in-depth analysis and commentary on women in society.

Newland Archer, a man living in high-class society New York in the 1870s, has recently become happily engaged. May Welland is well-suited to him and the two of them appear to be the perfect match. However, Newland’s whole foundation is shaken as he makes the acquaintance of May’s curious and beautiful cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen has become the scandalous talk of the town as she has abandoned her very wealthy husband in Europe. In all appearances, she seems to be attempting to walk away from a perfectly matched marriage that has made her a Countess and very wealthy. However, she is willing to sacrifice it all. Newland is entreated by May to be kind to Ellen and to make her feel comfortable in New York as well as advising her legally, that she should not file for divorce or risk losing everything. Headstrong, Ellen does not seem to care for the societal rules in New York and brushes them off as having been raised with European customs. Newland soon learns that Ellen has her own set of ideals and above all else, yearns to be free.

“Women ought to be free – as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

Without meaning to, Newland falls hard for Ellen as he begins to question his own feelings for May, his own identity, as well as the basis and cultural rules of the society he lives in.

Women wanting to be free, it is that very theme that keeps women, no matter what the ear, coming back to books like this. While things may have changed and have improved for women since Wharton’s era, many men and women, still feel trapped by certain aspects of society and by what is expected of them. Society is so prominent in this book it is the antagonist. It is a character in and of itself. Wharton does a phenomenal job of drawing you into this superficial life and then shatters it for you like she does for Newland’s. Ellen shows Newland the other side of society, what its like when you don’t fit it and once that facade is broken there isn’t any going back. The characters and their inner dilemmas stay with you long after you have finished their story. This is truly a beautiful book and if anything, should be read and marvelled for its prose.

“He had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.”

I would recommend this book for anyone who has ever wanted to read Wharton and doesn’t know where to start, prose-lovers, classics-lovers, romance lovers and historical fiction lovers.

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.