The first thing to tell you about Lars Iyer’s Dogma is that it is very funny. It didn’t make me laugh out loud on the tube, which seems to be the reviewer’s traditional stamp of approval for successfully comic novels, but this is partly because I didn’t read it on the tube. Had I read it on the tube I would have laughed, but silently, because I am British. The other thing to tell you is that Dogma is the second in a trilogy of what might loosely be termed philosophical novels, or more precisely novels about the inadequacies of philosophy. Which second point explains why I was so eager to get the other one in first.
The narrator is a character named Lars, namesake and avatar of the author, who documents his joint mission with a fellow academic, known only by the Kafkaesque initial W., to seek out the Truth. Their fractious relationship, one part Socratic Method to two parts Derek & Clive, is the fixed point around which the narrative spirals. Lars faithfully records the brutal put-downs directed against him by the haughty, hyperbolic W., and it is from these endlessly inventive cruelties that much of the humour derives. Entertaining pot shots are taken, too, at the vulgarity of twenty-first century life as the pair embark on a lecture tour of the US and then Europe. Along the way they schematise their new intellectual movement, the eponymous Dogma, and live it through such media as dance, song and excessive drunkenness.
There are echoes here of Flaubert’s hysterical, despairing Bouvard and Pecuchet, another novel that wrings comedy from the failure of two middle-aged men to find solace in learning. We’re also invited to read Lars as the doltish Sancho Panza to W.’s preposterous Quixote, embarked on an endless tour to restore faith in the dignity of intellectual endeavour and everywhere tilting at windmills. W.’s relentless self-aggrandisement lampoons the delusions of grandeur that afflict some in the academic community. A whispering campaign to oust him from his provincial university is thus ‘a bit like ancient Rome, before they stabbed Caesar to death’, and the internecine squabbling it provokes is, he declares, nothing less than a ‘Hobbesian war of all against all’ and ‘like something out of Dante’.
What the reader soon realises is that this novel is less about philosophy than alienation, disillusionment, betrayal and inadequacy. The protagonists’ nostalgia for a lost age of learning is predicated on their own sense of inferiority in relation to their forebears. They hark back to Franz Kafka like a football fan reminiscing, watery-eyed, about Tom Finney walking to the game with his boots in a bag. Unable to reconcile their ideas of how things should be with their experience of how the world is, W. and Lars rail against the present day, the perceived corruption of which becomes an excuse for their own mediocrity. Occasionally, the fact that their compulsive fault-finding is only a projection of their latent feelings of inadequacy is revealed to them: “What you have to understand is that Rosenzweig was very, very clever’, W. says. ‘We’ll never, whatever we do, be as clever as him.”
The characters’ tragedy lies in the fact that they have these moments of lucidity. Absurdist tragicomedy traditionally depends on the actors’ ignorance of their own ridiculousness, which lends them a degree of pathos. When they are aware of it, you wonder why they don’t stop being ridiculous. Dogma proposes that there is no alternative, and indeed that there is a degree of integrity in persisting to be ridiculous in spite of the humiliation one might thereby inflict upon oneself.
Dogma reads as a jeremiad against the way things are, and I took issue in parts with a tone that steers dangerously close to embittered lament. Without possibility of redemption the characters’ endless sound and fury threatens at times to pall, but there is beneath the invective a muffled note of celebration, a thwarted but persistent strain of idealism that maintains the reader through the polemic. Dogma, like its prequel Spurious, is provocative in its arguments, scrupulously plain in its style and excoriating in its honesty. Iyer is an author who rejects the parochialism and timidity we too often associate with British novelists in favour of an ugly grapple with the big themes, and for that alone his is a welcome new voice.
Dogma is published by Melville House Publishing.
Ben Eastham is editor of The White Review