One thing that struck me about this book was how structured it was. Like The Master and Margarita, no matter how outrageous the story got I never felt like it was going too far or not playing within the rules it had set up. A lot of this has to do with the magical quality of some of the characters. Ignatius’ unique world view could recreate reality anyway he saw fitting to suit himself, and more subtly but just as importantly Jones who has no actual corporeal form: he’s just a voice, a pair of sunglasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke. This magic flittering around the edges of each character played well into the theme of fortune, Fortuna, controlling all of our fate and it helped build this fictional world of New Orleans as a real place full of living, breathing characters whose fates are intertwined and dependent on each other.
Much like poor Mr. Levy, I too kept feeling depressed while reading this wonderful book. What made me sad was everyone seems to be suffering some degree or other of mental illness that hinders them from seeing the world as it really is, and also everyone’s lives were miserable because of circumstances out of their control – which led to more delusional behavior.
The most interesting theme of the book was self image and how people see themselves and each other and how they present themselves to the world. Nearly every character goes through a physical metamorphosis, Ignatius through his various jobs and hot dog vendor costumes (not to mention his weight), his mother’s bowling shoes she never takes off, Jones’ shifting cloud shapes, Miss Trixie’s new teeth and her always delusional ‘I’m a very attractive woman’, Mancuso’s forced undercover wardrobe choices, Darlene’s southern belle strippers costume, Dorian Greene’s hat (who he got from Irene at the beginning of the novel), and even Mr. Levy’s pant company which he changes to selling Bermuda shorts. Everyone is continually trying on new identities and it recalls how dangerously close to insanity some of the characters really are, Ignatius and Mrs. Levy, in particular.
Another theme is security. I realized this when Dorian Greene grows paranoid about the safety of his rental when the three lesbians are kicked out. He makes sure the gate gets is locked against intruders (no doubt because he and all his friends living there are gay), but there are other issues of security. Ignatius only wants to stay safe in either his room, or more broadly New Orleans having only left the city once in his life. Mr. Gonzalez desperately wants to keep working at Levy pants, probably because his entire identity is caught up in that wretched hovel. Jones wants the security of employment, if only to stay out of jail as a vagrant. Miss Trixie wants the security of retirement and, literally, a check from social security. Even Miss Annie wants security, this in the form of peace and quiet from her insane neighbors. This security recalls people who are living close to the edge of society and could lose everything at any time. This in turn could easily feed into any sort of vice or eccentricity.
These two themes represent how lonely and sad living in a city can be. Wanting to stand out from the crowd just to feel somewhat alive keeps the soul alive but wanting security from the teeming masses of people you don’t know, some of them dangerous, feeds your desire to hide away. These competing desires, to stand out and to hide, manifest themselves in various ways. Ignatius chooses to hide even though his personality makes him stand out, as does Mr Levy, and Jones. However, Dorian Greene, Claude Robichaux, Lana Lee, and Darlene all want to stand out – even if their actions mean they need to keep a low profile. Mancuso goes back and forth between hiding and standing out being he’s the undercover cop who sees all sides of the city, good and bad, though mostly the bad.
But even at a deeper level, the feeling of individuality and security are primal needs and are tied to the spiritual, even cosmic nature of the book through Fortuna and her wheel. We are all bound together, we are not safe from each other, but we all need each other, too. This schizophrenic view, this back and forth between needing security and wanting individuality, manifests itself in Ignatius’ world view that modern society is totally corrupt, perverted, and base. All of modern life’s pleasures are wicked and debauched, but also necessary, too. He loves his Dr. Nutt (there has to be a pun in this), he loves his doughnuts and little luxuries. And he can’t really reconcile these two competing ideologies, the battle between consumerism and survival (or at least spiritual). Other characters deal with this better – as most of us do – but even the most well adjusted of us sometimes feel that modern life is a bit silly and pointless and full of hypocrisy. We see and hate injustice, but we’re not going to personally do anything about it, unlike Ignatius who though totally out of touch with reality, at least attempts to do something for the workers of Levy Pants.
The thing about Ignatius is that while I do not like him as a person – he’s a liar, he’s manipulative, he’s selfish, he’s lazy – is that I can understand why someone like that would exist. I mean, why wouldn’t someone like that grow out of the insanity of modern life? Might as well meet insanity with more insanity! Live life on your own terms, even if it is crazy. And so I sort of forgive him a little, though I would loathe to even be in the same building as him. He’s a great literary character, but a pretty awful human being. He had everything handed to him and though he did suffer through some traumatic events in his life – his father dying, and his dog dying – he’s not suffering worse than, say, Jones who astutely shows us the people on the bus see him: as less than human and as a criminal. In fact the way people feel about Jones is how they should feel about Ignatius. Jones is a good person, he wants to work, he wants what modern life has to offer, even if it is as humble as a Buick and some air conditioning. He’s even as smart as Ignatius – not book smart, but his mind is just as sharp and would have been as book smart had he gone to school; he is street smart like no other.
And I think a lot of the book hinges on these two characters, Jones and Ignatius. Ignatius is corpulent, Jones in non-corporal. Ignatius is lazy and slothful, Jones is willing to work, though no harder than he’s being paid for; he’s no fool. But they are both outcasts in society, as a lot of the characters in the book are, and that’s what makes the New Orleans of the book a microcosm of all modern life. New Orleans here is a fishbowl where we can watch the crazy swim about and see how it acts, lives, and fights. And that makes Ignatius’ escape at the end sort of frightening because he’s now on the loose, infecting crazy wherever he goes, though his effect seemed to have a net positive impact on every single person he met. Everyone winds up the better because of him, either directly or indirectly, and whether they wanted it or not.
This was a great book and one of the funniest books I have ever read, though always with a twinge of sadness about it. And this is a completely unique book, too; I’ve never read anything like it. Like all great books it leaves you with much to think about and to unpack from each page and is a wonderful commentary on our modern age, even if it was written half a century ago.