In the three debut novels reviewed below, the protagonists take eccentric approaches to coping with life's difficulties and, in the process, deliver warped yet telling reflections...
In the three debut novels reviewed below, the protagonists take eccentric approaches to coping with life’s difficulties and, in the process, deliver warped yet telling reflections of our world.
“How I Became Stupid”
In this pithy, subversive debut, French novelist Martin Page taps into a feeling that afflicts many of us but that few act on — that life might be easier if we weren’t so painfully aware of the world’s woes or the pitifulness of our lives.
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That’s what young Aramaic scholar Antoine believes, and he’s determined to do something about it. “Intelligence,” he’s convinced, “makes you unhappy, lonely and poor.” It also, he finds, paralyzes you by always letting you see both sides of an issue.
After earnest attempts at alcoholism and suicide (he only gets as far as attending a pro-suicide support group), Antoine turns to his family doctor — and asks for a lobotomy.
What he gets instead is a prescription to Happyzac.
It isn’t long before the “little red pills” take effect: “He was still very upset by poverty and every kind of violence, it really was awful, but … well, what could he do about it? He couldn’t actually change anything, not by himself. It seemed a sincere sympathy had replaced his painful empathy.”
Thanks to Happyzac, Antoine is soon on his way to becoming a smoothly integrated member of society — albeit with a few complications. (Happyzac at first makes him oblivious to little things like overdrawn bank accounts.)
In Adriana Hunter’s deft translation, the logistics of intelligently attempting to destroy your own intelligence sometimes have the flavor of a Marx Brothers routine:
“My life would improve if I were stupid.”
“I’m right on track, then.”
At other times, the book reads like a strange variation on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” as its hero seeks the wisdom of drunkards, would-be suicides and (after his Happyzac-fueled turn-around) computer-dating agency executives.
“How I Became Stupid” softens its edge toward the end — perhaps inevitably, given the impossibility of Antoine’s quest. But at its sharpest, it sheds a genuine illuminating light on its subject.
“Having certainty,” Antoine declares, “is the most potent pleasure in this 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.”
How does a bright young slacker handle threats from a collection agency for reneging on $60,000 worth of student loans?
By offering himself up for medical experimentation, of course.
In this wild and woolly first novel by the author of “Remote Feed: Stories,” debt-plagued Billy Schine volunteers to be a “normal” in the testing of an “experimental atypical antipsychotic” designed to treat schizophrenia. For two weeks, he is sequestered in a closely controlled hospital environment — regular meals, daily blood tests, frequent doctor interrogations — and he likes it just fine.
Not all his “fellow normals” fare as well, however. And that raises questions as to what might be a “normal” reaction to hospital confinement and what might be drug-induced side effects.
The resulting novel is a trenchant study of human suggestibility, tricked out with a wry subplot about the media hoopla surrounding a brain-tumor victim whose latest MRI bears a striking resemblance to the Shroud of Turin.
“The Normals” is also — and a little less successfully — Billy’s personal tale, focusing on his lackluster love life and his indeterminate career (including one wickedly funny stint as copy editor of a teen-clothing catalog). His relationship with his parents is shaky. They’re devoted to each other to the exclusion of all else, including him. Now in their dotage, they’re about to ask him a favor he can’t possibly comply with.
Meanwhile, several normals and at least one doctor have ulterior motives in partaking in the medical experiment, making for some lively plot complications that dovetail nicely into the central story. Still, Gilbert is at his best when viewing millennial American society (the year is 1999) through his hero’s eyes.
Billy on advertising: “It starts with cereal boxes and the fun facts of milk. All this information jammed in front of your face and you’re the cornered prey.”
Billy on hope: “Hope in all forms should be distrusted. Hope is dumb breakaway glass shattered on the softest head. … Hopelessness is what Billy prefers. It has a simpler design and fewer moving parts.”
That may make the novel sound like a downer. Certainly it could be tightened up. But Billy, with his sad-sack humor and sardonic ruminations, gives it a certain disheveled charm throughout.
“The Family Tree”
Rebecca Monroe, the narrator of this smart, funny and poignant novel by a London journalist, has offered herself up for scientific experimentation as well. In her case, the science is genetics and the object of study (her dry-stick scientist-husband has talked her into this) is her entire family tree.
The subject of Rebecca’s postgraduate thesis — the moment “when television programs became part of our folk heritage” — also serves as a lens through which to contemplate her family’s past … a past which culminated in Rebecca’s mother, Doreen, taking her own life on the day that Lady Diana and Prince Charles got married.
Doreen, whose ups are ferociously vigorous (they include manic housecleaning sessions) and whose downs are positively abysmal, is a riveting creation: tightly wound, oblivious to herself, subject to moods and obsessions that build up or deflate over periods of weeks and months until she reaches the crack-up point. She may be a monster parent, but she’s also bizarrely comical at times, especially when denouncing the feminism of her ex-hippie sister, Suzanne.
When Cadwalladr sticks with Doreen and the nuclear Monroe family, the novel feels close to flawless. Added fun and energy come from young Rebecca’s inability to stop herself from asking “Why?” to every facet of adult behavior, including sex, which she, her domineering older sister, Tiffany, and their cousin Lucy speculate about endlessly (and hilariously). A sadder note comes from Rebecca’s father, James, who does what he can to preserve his wife’s fragile sanity, even as she lashes out at him.
Almost as good is the present-day story about Rebecca’s marriage and her attempts to use both genetics and sociology (particularly as they pertain to gender roles) to get a grip on her past and future. The third narrative strand, concerning Rebecca’s grandmother’s early romantic troubles and subsequent breakdown, proves adequate for Cadwalladr’s purposes, even if it lacks the immediacy of the Monroe family scenes.
A final felicitous touch is the use of the varying dictionary definitions of such pertinent words as “family,” “mother,” “relative,” etc., as epigraphs to the book’s chapters. The resulting tension between literary artifice and volatile feelings adds to the power of this ambitious debut.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.