Everybody loves a fool. In celebration of sweet silliness, leave your brain cells at the door and immerse yourself in literature’s ultimate boneheads
Have you heard the good news? There’s a virus that can live in your throat and make you stupid. You might think that's a bad thing, but actually it isn’t. Being smart is very overrated. Take characters in novels, for example. If you make your protagonist just a little less than self-aware – a little unpredictable and dazed (confused, even?) – you can hurl him or her into all sorts of interesting situations, sit back and watch plenty an entertaining plotline unfold. Intelligence is a relative concept anyway. And with Dumb and Dumber To raking in a cool $38 million on its US opening weekend, who’s to say what the right way to think is? Clever is boring. In celebration of sweet stupidity, here are ten of the best and most beloved fools in literature.
SPUD MURPHY FROM TRAINSPOTTING BY IRVINE WELSH
Sweet, spectacled Spud: he’s the redeeming soul of Trainspotting, otherwise populated by threadbare consciences oriented solely around smack. When he admits lying on his job application to “get his foot in the door” even though the interview has been arranged by the job centre – ah, the heart breaks! Sweet Spud. What an idiot.
STEPHEN FROM THE WALLCREEPER BY NELL ZINK
The unnamed narrator (Zink herself?) of this astounding debut novel has an albatross around her neck, and he is named Stephen. Stephen is very interested in birds and dubstep. Sometimes he is interested in the effects of hydroelectric power on the German landscape, sometimes not. Zink’s narrator is jobless, featureless, but electrifying: she has nothing to do, but instead thinks through a range and depth of conceptual material that most novelists couldn’t touch in five books.
IGNATIUS JACQUES REILLY FROM A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES BY JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE
No literary character is stupider or more wonderful than Ignatius, scholar of Boethius and inferior hotdog vendor. He speaks like a professor, which makes his dimness all the funnier: “You could tell by the way he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him.”
DICK FROM I LOVE DICK BY CHRIS KRAUS
Kraus’ first novel is hardly a novel at all. As she made clear in interviews later, the Dick character – with whom she falls madly in love and besieges with letters over the course of the book – is a real person, Dick Hebdige, and the story is pretty much true. I Love Dick is a sort of experiment on the authorial self, a total debasement of Kraus but also a damning indictment of Dick, who comes off as, really, a fool. He’s hardly even in the book. He’s just a canvas.
GAWAIN FROM SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT BY PEARL POET
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best medieval English poem. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. A large part of the reason it is so wonderful rests with Gawain, its hero. Bold, handsome, young and stupid, Gawain gets tricked and humiliated by people (and supernatural-ish beings!) who are cleverer than him. Over and over again. It is a rollicking adventure, but also the sweet tale of a good man who has no idea what is going on.
KIM FROM LESS THAN ZERO BY BRET EASTON ELLIS
In a novel full of vapid young “professionals”, Kim is a notable void:
“What do you do?” she asks, holding out the vest.
“What do you?”
“What do you do?” she asks, her voice shaking. 'Don't ask me, please. Okay, Clay?'
She sits on the mattress after I get up. Muriel screams.
“Because... I don't know,” she sighs.
What a woman! Inspirational.
EVELYN NESBIT FROM RAGTIME BY E. L. DOCTOROW
Evelyn Nesbit was a real person, a model and chorus girl in 1900s New York. After marrying a very rich man but still continuing a friendship with her benefactor, architect Stanford White, her husband shot White very dramatically. Nesbit is, therefore, famous. Like J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford, E. L. Doctorow swept her into the fictional swirl of his novel, Ragtime. In the book, she’s as sweet and pretty as the real photos suggest, but she’s also a total nitwit. Her naivety about poverty in New York is matched only by her dimwittedness about Emma Goldman’s reasons for taking off her clothes. She’s delightful anyway.
RICHARD FROM THE INFORMATION BY MARTIN AMIS
There’s probably nothing stupider than jealousy, since it’s so pointless. It cannot produce; only corrode. It is also the subject of this 1995 Amis novel, arguably one of his best. The Information is a study of professional rivalry between (no surprises) two 40-year-old men, both writers. One is successful and the other less so, but the stupidity is spread fairly evenly between them. Supposedly, both characters are based on Amis himself – anyway, they’re both idiots, but Richard is marginally stupider than Gwyn.
JANE EYRE IN JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË
So, Jane starts off very clever, reading books by the windowsill and avoiding the tormentors of her infancy. Jane Eyre the grown woman, however, is not. Mr Rochester is so gross that even when he compliments her he’s a dick about it: “don't mean to flatter you: if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it”. Charming.
EVERYONE IN HOMESICKNESS BY MURRAY BAIL
There’s no single especially stupid individual in Bail’s novel about a horde of tourists traipsing through endless museums. Rather, the book is about the strange pointlessness of tourism itself, especially the kind that is pre-packaged and pre-planned, as if the world were a special diet that you could get delivered to your house at regular intervals. It is an excellent book, but an infuriating one, although – spoiler alert – the ending is cleansingly powerful.