When you need something short and funny to read, it helps to have a few old journalistic favorites on standby. Mine include Dave Barry’s seminal Miami Herald piece “Can New York Save Itself?” and a Guardian article from 2002 in which the writer, Tim Dowling, was forced by his editors to spend a night in a trench in his backyard.
Last year I relaxed the rules and added a contemporary entry to my greatest hits list. Called “Pets Allowed,” it featured Patricia Marx, a New Yorker staff writer, running around town with a variety of creatures — snake, alpaca, pig, turtle, turkey — that she claimed were emotional-service pets necessary to alleviate her anxiety and distress. (She had a doctor’s note.)
“No animals were harmed during the writing of this article,” she wrote, “but one journalist did have to get down on her hands and knees to clean her carpet.”
Having read that sentence, or another one describing Marx’s Tribeca outing with the fake-emotional-service snake — “As I walked down Wooster Street, Augustus tickled my ear and then started to slither down my blouse. (Men!)” — who would not want to read her new book, “Let’s Be Less Stupid”? In this slim, bright-pink volume, Marx sets out to uncover why her brain does not appear to be working as speedily as it used to.
The problem is acute: “Indeed, sometimes, when I look for my glasses while wearing my glasses, I think, ‘My, my, it’s going to be a very smooth transition to dementia,’” she writes.
Much the way the movie “Inside Out” does with its 11-year-old protagonist, Marx takes us on a guided tour of the inner workings of her head. She draws several Roz Chast-like diagrams, including one called “Inside Patty’s Confusion” that shows it to be clogged with items like: “Ian McKellen or Ian McEwan?” and “How to set alarm on clock radio?” and “Where’s that thing for the thing?”
Having submitted to an MRI scan of her brain (“Is this what it feels like to be a piece of paper about to be photocopied?” she asks, slithering into the tube), Marx embarks on a regimen to boost her flagging faculties. “I’m no mind reader (yet),” she notes, “but I bet you are thinking, it took her many years to become as stupid as she is, how can she expect to become much less stupid in four months?”
She tries to learn Cherokee on the Internet. She does mental exercises from the website Lumosity. She and her boyfriend spend time wearing a device that shoots pulses of electricity into their brains for stimulation purposes. “Do any of these programs work?” she asks. “Define work.”
This is investigative journalism at its laziest. I mean that in a positive way. “You don’t really expect me to eat legumes and unrefined cereal, do you?” Marx says. Nor will she try to sleep more or apply herself very rigorously to “mindful meditation,” especially when her instructor declares, “If you understand the raisin, you understand mindfulness.” (“That’s a big if,” Marx says.)
The author does, however, provide a quiz — there are a lot of quizzes in this book, mostly designed to show you how quickly your brain is collapsing in on itself — in which you’re meant to identify which examples from a list of Indian words are meditation mantras, and which are types of bread. It is harder than you might think. (Sheermal: bread. Shring: mantra.)
I read “Let’s Be Less Stupid” over a few days — you can dip in and out, the way you might take an occasional swig of whiskey (or whatever works) as a pick-me-up — and kept forgetting where I’d put it down. It seemed like a case of form reflecting content.
Humor is a delicate, personal thing. Either an author’s sensibility appeals to you, or it doesn’t. Marx might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But she is mine.
“Let’s Be Less Stupid” is not “Being and Nothingness” or even “Free to Be You and Me,” but as Marx would say, who’s keeping track? With the direction your brain is heading, it’s not as if you’ll remember what happened in those books anyway.
“Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties,” by Patricia Marx (188 pages; Twelve; $22)