Monday, May 30, 2016

Book 41: I mean you'd think a book with a French singer doing karaoke of a philosopher's poems after sucking caviar through a straw would be better than this, right?

How I Became Stupid was the oldest book on my to-be-read list; I added it to my Amazon wishlist in June 2010, so it's been up there for about 6 years.

One of the reasons I stopped buying books in bulk, getting 2 or 3 or 4 at a time (aside from the sheer cost) was that by the time I get around to reading a book, I might not be in the mood to read it anymore. Some books have to hit me at the right time; I might think today that a book is going to be awesome but 6 months later my tastes have changed.

It's not just the passage of time that makes a book lose its luster. Sometimes a book that sits on a shelf for a while next to my bed will just start to seem like old news and I won't want to read it anymore. It's like they get stale. I can't really explain it.

So while I was reading How I Became Stupid, and to be honest not totally enjoying it, I was trying to think of what might have made me want to read it in the first place. At this point, 6 years on, I can't recall how I even first heard of the book.

How I Became Stupid is billed as an "International Cult Favorite," and promised hilarity and "coinage and invention." It's translated from French; the author is not the Martin Page who cowrote We Built This City, but some French guy.

The basic plot is a guy named Antoine decides that he's too smart and that his intelligence is getting in the way of his enjoying life. So he decides to make himself dumb. First he tries to become an alcoholic, then he decides to kill himself but chickens out after taking a class in suicide. Then he talks to a doctor about getting a lobotomy before getting a prescription for antidepressants. Taking a double dose of these leads him to like McDonalds and get a stock broker job. Once at that job, he twice spills coffee on his computer, and each time the short circuit causes a stock trade that makes him millions. He coasts in this job for a month or so before his old friend (who set him up with the job) tries to get him to go on a double-date with some escorts. At that point, Antoine's 'real' friends kidnap him and deprogram him with voodoo and Flaubert letters. Plus there's a visit from a ghost and, in the end, he meets a girl who makes him stand in the street until a car almost hits them, then pushes him aside and said she saves his life.

Aside from the intellectual snobbery of saying that people can be either smart or happy in modern life, and that dulling one's intellect is the only way to be happy, the book is mostly dull rather than offensive -- or 'inventive.' It feels almost like a mad lib plot, and while it touches on themes that are meant to feel significant, it rarely deals with them in either a thoughtful or entertaining way.

The best character in the book is a woman in a body cast. Antoine meets her when he tries his first beer and drops into an alcoholic coma after one sip; she is in the hospital because she keeps trying to commit suicide but fails. In her latest, she jumped off the Eiffel Tower and fell on some German tourists. I'd rather have followed her story than Antoine's.

The book tries to be madcap but mostly fails. One friend glows in the dark and can only speak in poetry, a quirk that might work better if the author had bothered to write a poem when the man spoke instead of just saying he was speaking in poetry. Antoine's aunt and uncle visit him in the hospital; they are patients there, too, and are convinced that the doctor has taken their spleens and replaced them with inferior spleens.

Antoine's awakening, or whatever, is accomplished without Antoine learning anything at all. I guess that was the point of the book, as Antoine announces in the beginning that his experiment in becoming stupid isn't intended to make him a better person.

But if you're going to write a book that wants to seem like it is asking a serious intellectual question about the role of intelligence vs. happiness, perhaps you ought to address the question? And if you're going to write a screwball intellectual comedy, like Jerry Lewis seen through Wes Anderson's eyes, you should make it funny and weird, instead of just a random assortment of things that seem designed to seem weird without the weirdness mattering.

It's a Potemkin village of a book, just a front of intellectualism and comedy with nothing real behind it.  Ironically, it's exactly the kind of book that would be a cult hit in the world Page presents in the book: a world where people aren't smart enough to realize that things aren't as great as they think.

But in the real world, this book isn't worth waiting six minutes for, let alone six years.

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