Martin Page, ‘How I Became Stupid’

How I Became Stupid

This was a rare purchase from a Waterstones – on this occasion, the rather brilliant branch on Princes Street (which if memory serves, is the branch where Alan Clifford was assistant manager way back when he was starting out on his bookselling career).

It wasn’t the jacket or the blurb that compelled me to get the book but a random shuffle through the text that came up with some real gems:

Ganja could not stop laughing.  An Icelander sitting at the table behind them handed him his pack of cigarettes: apparently the quavering, bleating sound of Ganja’s laugh meant something like “Do you have any cigarettes?2 in Icelandic.  Every time he laughed some kindly Icelander would offer him a cigarette.

In a surreal tale of Antoine’s determination to become happy, Page skewers contemporary society and all its base assumptions every bit as effectively as Palahniuk’s Fight Club but without the violence or knowing nudge-nudge, wink-wink.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Palahniuk’s writing but sat in an airport, watching various idiots rushing round like loons trying to buy presents just because it’s Christmas while reading this book, showed how even the most gentle, self-depreciating humour can become the basis of biting satire.

Page’s book is essentially asking: what if ignorance really is bliss?

The novel charts Antoine’s heroic odyssey from the moment he realises that he is unhappy because he thinks too much, he cares too much, always trying to anticipate the consequences of his actions.  Antoine observes that most people simply get on with things, selfishly gorging on everything that ‘life’ has to offer.  Antoine resolves to become just like other people but he has a problem: he is intelligent.  How does a twenty-five-year-old Aramaic scholar with a fondness for debating philosophical concepts with his friends in the Icelandic bar in the middle of Paris become, for want of a better term, stupid?

As we chart Antoine’s decline as he successfully becomes the sort of cubicle monkey, we become an unwitting audience – not unlike a cinema audience – willing him to get out of there, get out before it’s too late.  How he does that at the moment of his greatest ‘success’ is where this satire meets high-concept movie meets all your favourite coming-of-age, buddy, rom-com and epic adventure stories but in the handy, personal form of a book.  You know, the greatest technology ever invented, well, that and the cup of coffee:

Then suddenly, with no premeditation, Antoine became rich.  He was twiddling away on his two computers as usual, in his little cubicle amid the hubbub of a normal day: rises, falls, cries, phones ringing constantly, suicides, clicking keyboards, shouts, the regular hiss of ten coffeepots lined up along the wall… He was tapping away quite happily with a phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder, selling yens, throwing his hook and line out into the chancy waters of the market, when – as he reached for his coffee to moisten his parched lips – he tipped it over the keyboard of his main computer.  There were a few sparks, a bit of smoke, some crackling, the computer screens went fuzzy, blinked once, and then everything settled back to normal in a split second.  Except that his accounts indicated that he had executed a juicy operation to the tune of several hundred million francs…

…Antoine looked at the sum on the check [sic] and, quite unexpectedly, felt moved – as if his own first child had just been born.  And so he should have, he’d just had sextuplets: following some inconsequential numeral, there were six perfect zeros lined up on the check [sic].

As an after-thought, how better to explain the sheer absurdity of some over-paid gas-bag non-entities ‘working’ the stock-markets than spilt coffee?

Link to Amazon