Literarily speaking, The Idiot is a trope with a long and storied history. We all know about Dostoyevsky’s innocent fool, who shows that wisdom and foolishness are not necessarily what we thought they were. Shakespeare, following on ancient Greek traditions, often includes a fool to tell the audience what’s really going on. Don Quixote does his dance with the windmill. Even Peter Sellers gets into the action in Being There, dispensing sage gardening advice so miraculously wise that he may as well be capable of walking on water.
I worry that I too, am an idiot – not the good kind – I’m far too cynical to play the holy fool, too far gone, morally speaking, to claim any heroic innocence that helps me see to the heart of the universe the way a lover sees to the heart of the beloved. I’m always prying into motives, talking poorly of other people, and nursing my wounded pride. I lack a certain carefree bliss that’s necessary to fully pull off the role. I cannot stop and smell a rose while the world collapses around me, because I’ve convinced myself I have some necessary role to play in all of the machinations that surround us. Of course, I’m still the idiot. Just a different kind of idiot.
This, I’m convinced, is what J. Mulrooney wants me to think.
Friend of Dappled Things and author J. Mulrooney recently sent me his novel An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. He claimed that I would love reading it. I really did, but I’m trying to put out of my mind the secret message he’s trying to send because every other impression I’ve had of him is that he’s a nice guy.
With Halloween coming up, his timing was excellent. After all, the novel contemplates what happens when the Devil moves in next door. For starters, property values go down, obviously. Or do they? Maybe the Devil is more like us than we think. He might actually make a pretty good neighbor. Or at least, he isn’t worse than any of the other neighbors.
Mulrooney is turning the idea of The Idiot on its head. Sometimes idiots aren’t wise, misunderstood innocents. Sometimes they’re just idiots. When the Devil moves in, his new neighbor is Cooper Smith Cooper, a man who has no job, no significant relationships, no particular motivations to speak of, and no spiritual or philosophical impulses. Cooper has no deep thoughts. He only wants money so he can purchase a corvette. He’s happy to continue living in his sad, dated house in nowhereville suburbia, a place so sad that, once he glimpses hell, he cannot tell the difference. Once he finally gets a job – with the help of the Devil – everyone in the office considers him to be a high-functioning fool who is somehow scamming them. It drives them crazy that they cannot discover his secret. He’s so naive, in fact, that a few people even develop the theory that he’s a secret genius so smart and cunning that they cannot figure out his game because it’s too deep.
Cooper is an idiot, but he is not innocent. He steals, lies, objectifies women, is inconsiderate, thoughtless, and selfish. He accidentally makes a personal sacrifice that is widely misunderstood. He happily takes credit. Events swirl around him – vast conspiracies, political maneuvers, love interests – he remains clueless to all of it. His ego has numbed him to anything outside his own, immediate desires.
The Devil himself turns out to be banal as well. His desires have turned to a touristy vacation. His dream for his son is to get him a good job as an executive at an insurance company. He has become so bored with evil he can’t even be bothered to show up to work. Owning souls used to be fun, now it’s banal. The Devil is incapable of retaining any spark of life. Nevertheless, people continue to flood over the River Styx.
Mulrooney has presented us a world in which evil has become completely exhausted, and yet it still claims its victims. There are no holy fools to save us. No wise words that will shake us from our hell-bent ways. The Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, it turns out, isn’t so infinitely complex after all. Giving in to our baser instincts has emptied us of all that is miraculous, all that is inexplicable and surprising. A soul is bought and sold, a bargaining chip, nothing more than the number spit out at the bottom of a mathematical equation and entered into a spreadsheet. The Equation predicts it all.
If there is a way out for any of us, a way to break free of our stupor and become more than the sum of our parts, it will be through an encounter with an innocence and wisdom so stunningly different than anything we’ve known before that it will appear, for all practical purposes, to be pure and utter foolishness.