Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

I don’t get it.  I just don’t.  I have heard multiple people rave about the humour and hilarity of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and I’m at a bit of a loss.  Those who like this book like it a lot, but all I can say about it is “menhhh…”

Where to begin?  With the tale itself?  Alright.  A Confederacy of Dunces tells the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, a 30-something momma’s boy who still lives at home, has never worked an honest day in his life, and who lives in his own world (in which everyone else just takes up space).  Ignatius is well educated and intelligent, but because of this, he is unable to hold down steady employment as he considers himself to good for a regular job.  Rather, Ignatius is in the process of writing an opus on the state of society, but only at a rate of six paragraphs a month.  When we meet Ignatius, a car accident leads his mother to force him to find gainful employment, something Ignatius cannot fathom as a viable option.  The book follows Ignatius’ half-hearted efforts to make his way in the world.

While Ignatius is the main character, A Confederacy of Dunces follows the live of several other characters that intersect with him.  His mother, a long-suffering woman who is living her life more accidentally than with purpose; Patrolman Mancuso who tries to arrest Ignatius for being shifty, but ends up the butt of the precinct’s jokes; Myrna, Ignatius’ platonic girlfriend and a sexual radical; the Levys, Ignatius’s one-time employers whom he opens to a liability suit by calling a client of theirs a mongoloid; and the employees of the Night of Joy, a dive-bar that Ignatius and his mother once frequented, all make up part of Toole’s landscape.  Each character is rich and dynamic, but somehow fall flat in the greater scheme of things.

Now, I like to consider myself as intelligent, but I couldn’t help feeling, halfway through this book, that I wasn’t smart enough to understand it.  I did not find it laugh-out-loud funny like many people claim; I did not find any of the characters particular endearing; and I did not feel compelled to keep reading.  (This appears in one of my reading challenges – that’s why I finished it.)  

I decided in the end that it’s not that I’m not smart enough to get it, it’s that I don’t necessarily consider myself to be ‘clever’ enough.  I recognize the passages that have layers of humour, but I just don’t think of them as funny.  Case in point: we learn that upon the death of Ignatius’ dog, he stage a funeral for it at which the local priest refused to preside, causing Ignatius to break from the Church.  At play are the imagery of a dog’s well-attended funeral, the character-flaws of Ignatius, and the audacity of breaking with your religion because it would not accept your personal beliefs.  Fine.  It could be funny.  But only in that ‘I’m so clever that I get and appreciate all he subtle nuances of the situation’ kind of way.  Not my cup of tea.  (And, please remember this is MY opinion.  If you have a different one, please feel free to start and write your own blog.)  I can (and do) recognize the brilliance of Toole’s writing style, but the plot and point of the book are lost on me.  

So, what’s my final verdict?  Again, all I got is “menhhh…”  It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, but I didn’t find it all that great either.  I’m thinking that I might re-read it in a couple of years and see if my point of view and opinion change.  I have heard that A Confederacy of Dunces benefits from multiple readings.  I guess what I’m saying is give it a try, but don’t say I forced it on it.  (Wow, it’s a real comment on how I feel if that’s the overall impression I want to leave you with, isn’t it?  Yikes.) 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jan Berenstain

I started my love of reading young.  I thank my parents for that – they inspired me to read, and they gave me the tools to do so.  One of the biggest parts of my literary childhood was the Berenstain Bears books by Stan and Jan Berenstain .  

These books were my roommates, my playmates, and from the ages of 3 to 8, my soul-mates.  I have a whole whack of them, and I know they’re still tucked away in boxes in my parents’ basement, waiting to be taken out again and loved.  

A few years ago, I was sad to hear that Stan Berenstain had passed away, and we’ve recently lost Jan Berenstain as well.  Our world gets a little smaller and a little sadder when we loose the people who helped us build it.  Both authors, who were prolific to the end, will be sorely missed.

Sherlockian Fiction

I have a great affinity for the semi-colon; it’s a grammatical device often employed by those who write complex and connected thoughts, but are too lazy to find an elegant way of splitting them into separate sentences.  The first draft(s) of my Master’s thesis are littered with semi-colons; the final draft uses them frequently, but less so at the insistence of my thesis supervisor.  Now, what does that have to do with this review? you’re asking yourself.  It was while writing my Master’s thesis that I first started reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and I justified my love of the semi-colon while reading them, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently loved them too.  And that’s one of the many reasons (superficial, I know) that I love the Sherlock stories.

My exposure to Sherlock Holmes began with the Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law film that came out in 2009.  My family and I saw it together in the theater (which is a rare occurrence – getting my dad to a movie), and it was only a day or two later that I was a Chapters picking up a Conan Doyle omnibus.  I really enjoyed the Guy Richie twist on Sherlock, and still like re-watching the flick.  The sequel, however, didn’t pop with me nearly as much.  I’m going to re-watch it when it comes out on DVD, and hopefully it will be more enjoyable the second time around!

But, back to the impetus for the film – Conan Doyle’s original stories.  I have a facsimile collection of the short stories as they appeared in The Strand, with the illustrations.  I enjoy this little connection to the history of the work as much as I enjoy the stories themselves.  Conan Doyle’s style is the quintessential detective narrative.  All the facts of the case are laid before Holmes and Watson; the reader and Watson are left to deduce what they think happened; Sherlock ties up a few loose ends in his own thinking with some detective work; and Sherlock finally reveals what happened, which usually involves a twist.  

What makes Sherlock so famous is his power of deduction and the ability to ascertain the truth from minutia.  While I enjoy the device, I don’t understand why people think so highly of Sherlock’s deductive skills; he is, after all, a fictional character.  If you were able to have someone write out your future, of course everything would fall into place exactly as you would hope.  I enjoy the stories, but I can’t help but feel withdrawn from them at the same time for this reason.

And yet, there are apparently those in the world who take everything written by Conan Doyle as gospel.  These individuals are called Sherlockians, and we get a fictionalized glance at their doings and thought processes in The Sherlockian by Graham Moore.  Moore’s work is a tale of two stories; the first is set in 2010 in the Sherlockian-world after it is announced that Conan Doyle’s missing diary has been found.  This diary, which was not among his papers when he died, is the Holy Grail for Sherlock and Conan Doyle scholars.  The second story, set at the turn of the 20th century, follows Conan Doyle and his friend, Braham Stoker, during the period covered by the missing diary.  The reader is, in essence, treated to two mystery stories and a large dose of Victorian history in this work.  Over all, I enjoyed it, (but for the main character in the 2010 tale, who read like milquetoast), but it wasn’t as fast-paced as other Sherlock-inspired works, and I think it suffered for that.

Conan Doyle has left a huge legacy in the literary tradition of the West; his characters and style have inspired generations of writers ever since Holmes first appeared in the penny papers.  In essence, the writers that have followed in the Sherlockian-tradition are writing fan fiction (though generally it has less homoeroticism than it’s internet counterpart – at least the ones I’ve read…).  The first such work I came across was Dust and Shadow, by Lindsay Faye.  Faye’s work plays on the brilliant coincidence that saw the best detective in London’s history come to fame during the time of London’s most enduring mystery – the crimes of Jack the Ripper.  The reality is that if Sherlock were a real person with the skills ascribed to him by his creator, we may have an answer on the Ripper’s identity.  Faye’s work is a proposed reality in which Sherlock did walk the cobble-stones of London at the same time as the Ripper, and it’s an incredibly satisfying read.  Pick it up!

But for all the generations of Sherlockian fan-fiction writers, only one comes to the party with street-cred, and that’s Anthony Horowitz.  His work, The House of Silk, is (apparently) the first such work approved by the estate of Conan Doyle.  Horowitz’s work reads like a longer version of Conan Doyle’s original stories and is replete with twists and turns that would do Sherlock proud.  The hook in this work is the nature of the crime; Horowitz’s Watson acknowledges that to write about its nature in Victorian England would have set the world on fire, and so he committed the tale to paper, locked it in a bank vault, and left instructions that it should only be published one hundred years after his death.  Not only does Horowitz capture the tone of Conan Doyle’s investigatory fiction, but he plays into the constructed reality of Dr. Watson as Sherlock’s biographer.  The tale and book are well balanced, and a wonderful read.

So, what sparked my sudden interest in Sherlock and inspired me to re-visit an interest that emerged two years ago?  In the last week, I’ve read two novels of Sherlockian fiction and revisited the Conan Doyle omnibus thanks to my discovery of the newest homage to Sherlock – the BBC’s TV mini-series Sherlock.  Set in modern-day London, this re-imagining of Sherlock is pitch-freaking-perfect.  The Beeb has commissioned multiple seasons of this re-telling because the creators have taken the spirit, intent, and feel Conan Doyle’s stories and transplanted them into the modern dialect, and (in my opinion) nothing ever goes wrong.  The only heart-breaking thing about these seasons for me is that they are only three episodes long!  I want more of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (Watson)!  Seriously, go out and find a way to watch this show – it rocks.  Hard.

Well, that’s my assessment of the Sherlockian-fiction.  Some (mega) hits, some misses, but all in all, a major part of our zeitgeist.  If you’re one of the uninitiated, I encourage you to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and branch out from there.  It seems impossible to escape any knowledge of Sherlock, even in this day and age, so why bother trying; rather, go out an educate yourself on what it is that makes Sherlock so enduring and popular.  Oh, and use more semi-colons; the world needs more semi-colons.