February 2005

Matt Richmond

fiction

how i became stupid by Martin Page

I just finished how i became stupid, a novel by a French guy named Martin Page, and there’s one thing I can’t figure out: Why did this book take me a month to read?

At 160 pages -- smallish pages with pretty big type and huge margins -- it certainly wasn’t the length that held me up. The novel is about the size of a collection of Archies comics. The paragraphs are short. The chapters are broken up into little story-chunks. Everything in the packaging points to a quick read, and yet the thing was hard to pick up and very easy to put down.

But then, the subject matter isn’t exactly breezy. Meant to be a fable of sorts (or, as the back of the book suggests, “a modern-day Candide with a Darwin Awards-like sensibility”), Page’s main character, Antoine, spends more than a third of the book explaining what a drag it is to be intelligent. And while he may have a point, the argument smacks of pretentious stoner-boasting in the freshman dorms.

For example, in a letter that Antoine has written to his friends to explain his mission of becoming stupid, Page writes: “Men simplify the world with words and thoughts, and that’s how they create their certainties; and having certainty is the most potent pleasure in the world, far more potent than money, sex, and power all combined. Renouncing true intelligence is the price we have to pay for having these certainties, and it’s an expenditure that never gets noticed by the bank of our minds.” Yes, dude, I am so totally with you.

Page drops the rhetoric soon after and things pick up for a bit as Antoine takes a job as a stockbroker, makes a bundle by accident and indulges in some of the consumerism and self-medication that he was too smart for in the beginning of the book. There are a few madcap adventures involving fast food, sexual predation and a wrestling champion named Vlad, but behind all of Antoine’s social experimentation, you can still sense that Page is just too cool for anybody in the world who owns a TV.

The novel also got me down with its incessant wackiness. I understand that, as a fable, a story doesn’t have to stay within the boundaries of reality, but this one often seemed to be wacky for wackiness’s sake. There’s Antoine’s friend who speaks only in verse and glows in the dark. There’s an Icelandic-themed bar, a ghost of a man who hasn’t died, a drunk who lines up eleven different liquors as his usual drink. There’s also a seminar on effective suicide, a mood-altering drug called “Happyzac,” and, of course, a fascinatingly quirky girl who shows a straight-laced man how to have fun again.

There are some nice moments, too, mostly in the realm of imagery. Page, describing Paris, writes, “Exhaust pipes diffused their pollutants like the pollen of a new era, sowing the future flora of a sickly civilization in the lungs of Parisians and tourists alike.” Another line I liked was in Page’s description of what the future holds for an assistant professor: “to die in perfect obscurity some sixty years later, leaving a body of work that would influence generations of termites.”

Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. “how i became stupid” doesn’t offer any characters to give a shit about, doesn’t offer much beautiful language (at least in this translation), and tries too hard to convey its moral, which seems to be “if you do anything other than complain about being too smart, you’re a sell-out.”

Save yourself a month, order a pizza and rent an action movie.

how i became stupid by Martin Page
Penguin Books
ISBN: 0142004952
176 Pages