I picked up Perfume back in '93 solely because it was the inspiration for one of my favorite songs, Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice," and was indeed Kurt Cobain's favorite book. It's easy to see why. Grenouille is rejected by everyone he encounters from a very early age, and in turn flees for a time as far away from the scent of human as he can get, but eventually uses his miraculous, often painful sensitivity to create a masterpiece that brings him immediate adulation — yet once he's done so and fulfilled his dream, he finds it deeply unsatisfying and gives up on life. Sound like anyone you know? But there's another reason why one can see Kurt, or anyone, deeming this a favorite: it's simply excellent. Süskind creates a whole new world built from elements that are at once alien and intimately familiar, for while smell is certainly no imaginary construction like telepathy, it's also not what most of us rely on in piecing together our sense of the world — at least not consciously — and I can't imagine anyone reading this novel without making the attempt. Indeed, I almost wrote that this is a book whose universe is so vivid that we see our own differently afterward — though of course it's not the case that we see it differently at all. If the book has a flaw it's that Süskind is too openly contemptuous of his characters, though this bothered me less on this reading than it did initially. For the most part his narration is fairly cool and detached, and the disgusting bits are rendered clinically.
A Confederacy of Dunces, on the other hand, revels in its disgusting bits. Perfume may have been set in pre-revolutionary France, but Dunces is the more Rabelaisian of the two works. We have jokes about Ignatius farting, about Ignatius being really fat, about Ignatius's sheets being stained. We also have jokes about old people being withered, whiny and forgetful; about gay men mincing and lesbians beating people up; about strippers being really dumb and lefty activists being really flaky. These are generally not funny. What is funny is when these characters are bounced off one another in increasingly unlikely combinations and comment on one another: the sardonic janitor's increasing fixation on the stripper's pet cockatoo, Ignatius's discovery of and repeated references to his mother's hidden wine which he finds while attempting to cook dinner ("Leave me alone! Don't you have a bottle of muscatel baking in the oven to tend to?"). Many of the threads may be of dubious quality, but it's great fun watching the pretzel Toole makes of them — and, indeed, the threads are redeemed in the process, like twelve objectionable flavors combining to form something tasty. So, yeah, overrated but still good.
In this paper, I have shown that— damn. I have to stop doing that.