W., one of the main characters in British novelist and academic Lars Iyer’s Dogma, sees great and terrible portents in his buddy’s clumsy dance moves. As the novel’s narrator, the double-left-footed buddy in question, explains, “It’s the end of the cosmos that W. sees in my dancing. He sees the destruction of the divine figures, and of the manifold contours of the universe. He sees primordial chaos, he says. He sees the putting out of the stars. He sees the extinguishing of the sun, and the night swallowing the day. He sees the opposite of the act of creation, the opposite of cosmogony …”
Now, we’ve all seen terrible, even terrifying dancing and considered the larger implications for a relationship, a friendship, maybe even for culture and, perhaps in rare instances, for civilization itself. But for the very universe? It seems a bit much, but certainly not for the addled, rattled, bulbously learned characters who populate this book, the second in a scatological-cerebral trilogy devoted to exploring the frustration, boredom, absurdity and occasional exuberance that painfully self-conscious intellectuals experience from living a life ragingly and gleefully captive to their own conviction that our time on Earth is a long sad journey of nothingness marked by mental and bodily distractions from nothingness that inevitably only contribute to the greater surrounding nothingness, a nihilistic melodrama that finally, in death, gives way to Nothing itself.
Now, dear reader, you must decide: Does this kind of thing strike you as brave, or as affectedly brave? If it sounds brave, then indeed read this book, ideally in public while combing out a Nietzsche-sized mustache, and no doubt you’ll enjoy it or, actually, you’ll enjoy telling the pitifully less-enlightened around you how much you enjoyed it and also, that they never could. They can’t, of course, because they have failed as yet to pierce through the illusions that make most of us believe and behave as if there are indeed meaning, purpose, and order in this life and world.
To be sure, the main characters in Dogma affect to hope so; they are two British academics depressed by the bleak prospects of their careers, professions and, indeed, universities in an age that – as Iyer persuasively sets it before us – seems to have spiritually, intellectually, morally and financially spent itself into irredeemable deficits.
Knowing this, W. and the narrator desire redemption anyway; they convince each other that religion provides a plausible source to search for it. The novel represents their efforts to find as much – mostly through a drunken professorial madcap adventure through the American South (with cameo appearances by nice Canadian academics who’ve been terribly wounded by living in Nashville, Tenn.); an unsuccessful lecture series devoted to variations on the nature, power and usefulness of “dogma”; and through their constant brainy kibitzing, which the narrator reports to us in a trickle-to-torrent-of-consciousness that flows and seeps around shards and chunks of sketch and anecdote.
Of course, the main characters are always already convinced of the futility of their quest, which means that every possible sacred revelation or philosophic construal of meaning, order, purpose, is revealed as but another played-out system, including their own congenital penchant for deconstruction and debunking and demystifying.
The characters hate themselves for this, and you’re forgiven for agreeing with them, regardless of your sympathy for Iyer’s effort to represent their mental gymnastics as a sterile and compulsive and untreatable malady for lonely, over-educated, mediocre professors seeking a worldview that matches the depths of their self-styled interior vacancies.
Across this dispiriting book, the narrator refers to himself and his companion-in-nullity as idiots, indeed as “the greatest of idiots.” Importantly, Iyer’s characters are not to be confused with the devastating, wise fools one finds in Beckett and Lear and Dostoevsky. In fact, they’re not even great idiots.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of American studies at Ryerson University. His most recent novel, Beggar’s Feast, will be released in paperback in April.