Confederacy of Poverty

I’ve never been a huge fan of the picaresque novel. I enjoy their satirical elements and the style of the anti-hero, but the general lack of character development and story that are usually aspects of the picaresque I find hard to get along with. So I approached our first novel of book club, John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces, with some trepidation.
But it was mostly unfounded as I enjoyed the novel quite a lot. I can see why it took a lot of effort to be published (Toole’s mother spent over a decade contacting publishers after her sons suicide) as the lack of plot make it a hard sell. The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is a tour-de-force of epic proportions. He is at once arrogant, exasperating, self-indulgent, lazy, emotionally challenged, solitary, frustrating and contradictory. But never anything less than compelling. The episodes of the novel are mostly farcical and to some Ignatius’s ridiculous reactions to anything resembling hard work would come across as annoying. The move teeters on this tightrope throughout, but for me Toole goes up to this line but never quite crosses it. I’ve certainly never read anything quite like Dunces and for that I can only recommend it.
Our second choice was something vastly different – George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London. Orwell is known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and this account of his time struggling with poverty in the early 1920s was a fascinating glimpse into his life at the beginning of his career.
The book describes poverty in superb detail, always with compassion and honesty and a great deal of humour too. Orwell’s travails as a plongeur (waiter, basically) in Paris hotels is a chaotic and often very funny look at the poor underbelly of the Parisian working class. The sheer scale of the chaos and hard work of the plongeurs is almost unbelievable. The long hours and back-breaking conditions are soul-destroying and for very meagre pay. The power of Orwell’s writing brings these scenes to life in a compelling way and also have much resonance to conditions in the hospitality industry today. My partner works in hospitality and some of the scenes Orwell describes, whilst at the extreme end of the scale, are still applicable in today’s industry.
His experiences of homelessness in London are exceptionally well drawn. He underwent a constant cycle of walking between hostels, often for up to 20 miles a day, and surviving on little more than bread and margarine for days on end. The descriptions of starvation reminded me very much of another writer who lived on the poverty line for much of his life, Charles Bukowski. Orwell has that matter-of-fact, dry prose that is the antithesis of Bukowski but still a similarity remains. Whilst this section of the book is challenging and finds Orwell at a low ebb he never loses his compassionate outlook or ability to see hope in his situation. Which is something to admire.


One of the mediums of writing that seems to be going through a decline at the moment is the short story. I rarely read them these days, mostly due to their scarce nature. I’m sure in days gone by the library would be full of short story collections by emerging authors, and reading them was an excellent way to discover new talent.
Of course some of the old masters know a thing or two about writing a good short story – Stephen King is a passionate advocate of the shorter form and publishes a collection every few years, and going further back in time, I got into both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler through their short stories. It’s rare to find a stand-alone collection from one author around anymore. Most short stories end up in anthologies, particularly in the crime and horror genre. I have read some superb anthologies over the years which are great places to delve into material from authors old and new, but my feeling is that writers of the modern era don’t have the volume of short stories available to release collections of their own.
The reasons behind this are probably numerous. I tend to believe that after writing a full-length novel an author tends to produce something shorter in the interim. Perhaps these musings are little more than practise, to keep the writing eye and brain ticking over before returning to something more substantial. There could well be some snobbery towards the shorter form from some. But I think the main reason could well be that simply, short stories require an awful amount of craft and discipline to create.
I’ve had a few ideas scribbled in a notebook for a while that are waiting to be developed. There is no plan for these, no idea of length and so on, I just make a note to jot down any semblance of an idea that comes into my head. At the library the other day I stumbled across a short story collection that looked interesting. It was called Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers. Much like I used to with cigarettes when I smoked, I devoured the book in an evening and it lit a fire within me. The stories in it are so polished and amazingly confident for a debut collection. The overarching themes of loneliness and solitude linked together by a humble cigarette is a clever idea and Evers pulls it off in some style. It reminded me of how the short story can breath life into an otherwise mediocre day, how so many intoxicating ideas can be swept up into a few pages and give the reader a shot of pleasure in the time it takes to smoke the aforementioned cigarette.
So I had a look back in my notebook and one of the ideas started to take on more shape, and I’m now in the process of writing my first short story in many a year. And in my writings I’ve gained utmost respect for the medium – it is so difficult to write in concise, clear language where every word counts. I’ve always had a tendency to over explain things when I write, and I think many writers do. It’s probably fear that drives this, fear that an extra sentence is needed to explain what you mean otherwise the point is lost. In a short story there is no room for waffle. Everything has to be cut back to the bone. It requires an almost pathological discipline, particularly to discard ultimately unnecessary writing no matter its quality. The best short stories are surely those that get up to speed quickly and never let up their pace.
So, maybe this difficulty puts a lot of writers off. I’m glad to be tackling the format again, it’s a challenge I’m enjoying. To write with a view to brevity and clarity can only help me improve.