Saturday, January 11, 2014

The aging of satire

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is one of those books I had occasionally looked at and thought about, and kinda thought I should have read, but I hadn't.  So when I saw a copy close to hand and grabbed it, figuring I'd read it.

Only around the 70-80 page mark, I began to encounter some resistance. That's about where I have to decide whether to push on through a book, or let it go.  I'm inclined towards the latter with this one.

Here's the deal.  Toole definitely has a keen eye and a way with the words, some very humorous stuff here, some fine satire. Reminiscent of Gogol or, even more so, Ilf and Petrov (The Twelve Chairs, The Golden Calf), the great chroniclers of the foibles of the New Economic Period of the 1920s in Russia. The problem is, it's satire from a different historical era, and if it's not top rate, aged satire it often suffers from the reader's distance from what's being made fun of.*  And, although Toole won a Pulitzer... well, they give those every year, and it's kind of a beauty contest. I don't think the book rises up to transcend its era. In fact, it's kind of hard to figure out what he wanted to do with the novel.

There's one other fundamental problem. The satirical author/narrator has to consider him/herself better than what he's satirizing.  And that wears on the reader, and it's really characteristic of white guys in their 20s (Toole killed himself when he was 32).  I know.  I used to be one of them.

"Realistic" fiction, at least at a some basic level, seeks to subordinate itself to what it describes. Endless ink has been spilled on its inability to do so, but at least it tries. And even as it ages, I tend to appreciate the humility of its aim.

Anyhow, I won't hang the novel up altogether, I'll put it on the stack next to my bedside table and see how it does.




* Satirical movies age better, because, for one, they're shorter, and they also have the additional element of typically being filled with gifted physical comics with goofy faces and finely honed timing

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Anonymous said...

Push on. It's been a long time since I read it but remember enjoying it. We'll take at the lake.

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