Dogma by Lars Iyer. Melville House, 224 pp. $14.95.
There’s a rarely acknowledged fallacy at the heart of both book reviewing and that loftier and more expansive discipline, literary criticism: the judgments that critics put forth are mostly subjective—albeit based on evidence, argument, and elucidation—and each critic works with his or her own rubric. Even so, we must acknowledge that whatever we hold as our traditional rules of book reviewing must at times be set aside when the work in question is sufficiently experimental or, simply, unusual.
Such is the case with the novels of Lars Iyer. A lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Iyer is the author of Spurious—which won The Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize” last year—and, now, Dogma, a sequel to the previous work. Both books are novels in name only—bookstores require these convenient taxonomies. In reality Iyer has written scabrous philosophical comedies about two men—W., a moderately successful writer and intellectual, and his layabout failure of a friend, Lars Iyer. The plots follow their delirious, often drunken, conversations about life, religion, and the end of the world (which they believe is soon approaching). They’re like two very well read David Mamet characters, skydiving without parachutes and laughing all the way down.
The Iyer character narrates the books, and he actually says very little. Most of the text is W. incessantly hectoring his friend, telling him that he’s a wastrel, a drag on his own life and work, a ghastly mess, and various other forms of disappointment. Spurious began its life as a blog—something I only learned after reading—and the book does, in retrospect, have a bloggy feel: the chapters are short and jumpy; there’s almost no organizing principle; and W.’s pronouncements tend to have an off-the-top-of-my-head kind of spontaneity, albeit offered with humor and even brilliance. Here’s one of W.’s typical rants, from Spurious:
Which one of us is Kafka and which Brod?, W. muses. We’re both Brod, he says, and that’s the pity of it. Brods without Kafka, and what’s a Brod without a Kafka?
We are both Brod, W. says, and Brod for one another. When an ass looks into the gospels, no apostle looks back; when Brod looks into Kafka, it’s only Brod who looks back. I am his Brod, W. tells me, but he is my Brod, too.
I am his idiot, but he is mine, and it’s this we share in our joy and laughter, as we wake each day into the morning of our idiocy, wiping the sleep from our eyes and stretching.
This is how it goes for these “mystics of the idiotic.” W. is the pontificator; Iyer is his amanuensis, recording, listening, rarely chiming in, absorbing the fire hose of his ramblings. Kafka is their god, with various other European intellectuals of the modernist Jewish varietal occupying lesser places in the pantheon.
Little happens over the course of Spurious. There is no progression per se, except in Iyer’s flat, which is being consumed by mold. When Dogma opens, the mold, or “damp,” has receded, but now the apartment is infested with rats. One plague leaves, another enters.
Dogma has slightly more story than Spurious, though you might need a magnifying glass to find it. For part of the book, W. is on a lecture tour through the American South. The sense of an impending apocalypse is now more acutely felt, though occasionally the two men find solace in “Dogma,” a sort of religious code that may be intended to form the heart of this book but is quickly lost in the hurricane of chatter. As in Spurious, W. and Iyer wander (it’s not always clear where; there are no real “scenes”), exchange religious parables (Iyer is a Hindu; W. appears to be a lapsed Jew), and prattle on. Occasionally W. lets loose with some criticism of capitalism (“How long was it before market forces triumphed?, W. wonders. How long before competitiveness did away with friendship and community?”), but Iyer, the author, is not interested in building a sustained argument.
It is here that Dogma forces me to question the utility of my traditional reviewer’s rubric. Because anyone reading Iyer’s work and expecting pathos or unity of time, structure, and narrative—any of those pesky shibboleths of the novel—will be disappointed. On the other hand, these books, if considered under the broader banner of “fictions,” are genial entertainments—like encountering your favorite college professor slumped over a bar, desperate for a willing listener.
A professor himself, Iyer is an omnivorous consumer of the humanities. There doesn’t seem to be a European artist or intellectual who he hasn’t chewed over. And his related ability to invoke anyone from Wittgenstein to the Austrian poet George Trakl is a crowd-pleaser for those readers who appreciate writers who are voracious in their appetites. Moreover, his characters’ overriding sense that we are living in some sort of pre-apocalyptic time—fated to be undone by climate change, civilizational decay, or our own incipient madness—seems to reflect something authentic about our own unstable reality. When these thoughts are communicated in darkly, desperately humorous ramblings, there is then a lot to enjoy, if not much to move you.
Well steeped in the Western canon, Spurious and Dogma at times reminded me of the experimental novels of David Markson. While there isn’t any of Markson’s encyclopedic sensibility, the books share a tendency to accrete information, often of a very dark bent, and they are attuned to mortality’s quickening approach. Like Markson, Iyer repeats himself and continually returns to the same things, seeking perhaps to create an impression of something, rather than to communicate the thing itself.
And yet, that leaves us sifting through the pile in hopes of finding something to hold onto. I appreciate Iyer’s references; his worshipful excitement is infectious; and there’s a welcome way in which these books feel quite up-to-date, such as a funny anecdote when W. becomes addicted to the game Civilization 4, destroying one newly purchased, unopened copy before he can relapse. Iyer has distinguished himself as a writer of great comic ability, and I would certainly snap up anything else he might write to see how he deploys this blend of erudition and wit.
But in the end, it’s hard to divorce oneself from the notion that these books are insubstantial (however deliberately), and that we enjoy the mind behind them more than the books it produced. Spurious and Dogma ask us to forgo the pleasures of story without leaving us much to feast on in its stead. Pursuing one of the book’s threads—the narrator’s infested apartment, W.’s academic life, their road trip through the U.S.—with even half-hearted attention would have left a far more solid foundation on which Iyer could present his monologues. The voice, after all, requires a body.
One can still find tantalizing fragments of satire here—for example, W.’s “college is going to specialize in sport instead” of academics—but this kind of imaginative brio is mostly left in reserve. Spurious and Dogma also lack the formal innovation of Markson’s work while failing to stake out new ground in the admittedly difficult terrain of experimental fiction. I had fun reading these books, but they left me little to savor or to long remember. Unfortunately, that makes them more Brod than Kafka.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and many other publications.
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