Pratfall into the Infinite

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Is Lars Iyer’s new book Dogma a refutation of literature? Or an inevitable confirmation? Regardless, it’s a funny philosophical tale.

It might be a little misleading to say that Lars Iyer’s Dogma, the sequel to Spurious, picks up where its predecessor left off. The problem is Spurious made a point of not going anywhere to begin with. Both books are obsessed with “the end times,” but their apocalypse seems to be one in which, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, “things keep going on as they are.”

Hence, Dogma sees Iyer’s anti-heroes, the “failed philosophers” Lars and W., repeating the same comic routines that caught our attention the first time around. Although the book begins with a trip overseas and ends with W. losing his job, he and Lars haven’t come far from their stock repertoire of “smut, chimp noises and made-up German.” Unlike proper protagonists, this dissolute duo don’t grow, or change, or learn from their mistakes. Their author isn’t interested in character arcs that culminate in completed identities. Yet if neither Lars nor W. go on a “journey,” then that’s what makes their story significant: their’s is an unplotted pratfall into the infinite. In other words, Iyer’s writing leads us away from what we’re led to expect from literature. Indeed, it seems to suggest that failing to live up to literature may be a means of overcoming it.

So we mustn’t misread either of Iyer’s books as “literary fiction,” in any straightforward sense. Here we’re dealing with something laughably less than literature – but maybe, therefore, something more. In a recent manifesto, Iyer has argued that literature is “dead,” and that trying to write it today is a kind of imposture. If this is so, Dogma’s response is to mockingly mark its own imposture, showing up its shortage of literary seriousness. Thus there’s a moment when W. likens himself and Lars to “the man and boy of The Road, pushing a shopping cart down an empty highway.” However, he claims, “in our case… it’ll be two men, squabbling over whose turn it is to ride the cart.” What he means is that an entire literary ethos, an outlook on life, has been lost. In literature’s wake, writing must be made aware that it no longer measures up: “we may have forgotten how to live,” says Lars later on, “but they – the authors in W.’s man bag – have not.”

Ironic jokes in which literature is both scoffed at and longed for: these will be familiar fare for anyone who’s read Spurious. As before, the bathos is perfectly pitched, and Lars and W.’s antics are gloriously uproarious. But does Dogma succeed in making a more serious statement of failure? That is, can it somehow slough off a “false” literariness by pointedly falling short of it? Interviewed in the run-up to Dogma, Iyer called for critics to call the book’s bluff:

I’d like to see a backlash for Dogma… I dream of a detailed takedown… something really cruel… I have a desire to be told off, to be not allowed to get away with it. A desire for the order of the world to be restored, even as I know that it cannot be restored. This, of course, is really the desire for an older literary world, a world of tradition and security from which I feel utterly estranged…

I’d say such a takedown should start by attacking the terms in which this appeal is framed. Iyer implies that a better or “older” world, where literature could still exist, would be one where his own writing couldn’t. The presumption here is that Spurious and its sequel are “signs of the times,” and thus that books can still sum up the epoch in which they’re written: surely a “literary” aim, if ever there was one. Perhaps Iyer’s is a literary project par excellence. Presenting his novels as symptoms or symbols, he slightly uncritically slips into sync with one of W.’s dictums in Dogma: “always write as though your ideas were world-historical.”

Indeed, Dogma doesn’t try to overturn the true cornerstone of traditional literature: a commitment to the expression of history. It’s telling that the book’s characters call themselves “harbingers,” as W. has it. “That we’re alive,” he announces, “is a sign of the nearness of the end.” The personal accusations that W. levels at Lars further cement the pair’s representativeness. If bad things are happening in history, they’re happening “in you above all,” he reminds him; whatever’s wrong with the world is always wrong “with you.” In this sense, Iyer’s characters embody the qualities that the critic Georg Lukács admired in Tolstoy’s creations. As Lukács would say, Lars and W. are “typologically” embedded in their historical setting. Whether this is good or bad isn’t the issue. The point is that it’s quintessentially literary. So if Iyer would like to imply that his writing arrives “after literature,” then its arrival is already complicated by an unexamined literariness.

Literature is hard to have done with, and Iyer isn’t the first to exaggerate a report of its death. But if Dogma doesn’t fully succeed in failing to be literature, what, in its failed failure, might it begin to become? Iyer has elsewhere espoused the idea that writers should cultivate their “legitimate strangeness.” Well, what Dogma does is deepen the strangeness of Spurious. Instead of resolving the earlier work’s contradictions, it only makes them more involved, more intractable. We’ve seen how it sets itself up to fail, then fails to do that. In so doing, it doesn’t so much plumb the depths as discover a deeper depthlessness. Hence, Dogma gives us a growing sense that the strangeness of Iyer’s work is “legitimate,” precisely because it pursues but can’t achieve illegitimacy.

Somewhere around the anticlimactic end of the novel, W. advocates an activity called “non-thinking.” The “non-” in this coinage is “not privative,” he claims. For him the expression “means something more than a simple negation.” In the same sort of vein, we could say that Dogma’s double failure starts to show us what a “non-literature” might look like. If Iyer’s writing never completely negates literature, neither does it naively affirm it. Instead it pulls us toward a place that isn’t quite “after” literature, but that somehow subsists both inside and outside of it. Of course, you needn’t agree with me to enjoy Dogma’s jokes, or to appreciate its superbly accomplished absurdity. But beneath all that, there is, I think, something important at work in the book. Or rather, something which stops working, which breaks down, and which ends up presenting literature itself as an unsolvable problem.

David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He has written for The New Inquiry, The Millions, Open Letters Monthly and a range of other publications. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine. More from this author →