Few writers have captured the despair and self-loathing that necessarily accompany the academic life as perfectly as Lars Iyer, and surely fewer have done it so humorously. Spurious established the tone for the trilogy, immersing us in the abusive relationship between W. and Lars, in W.’s continually thwarted desires to somehow become worthy of philosopy, and in the sheer squalor of Lars’s existence. The infamous “damp” infecting Lars’s apartment resonated with the wisdom of the ancient Israelites, for whom mildew was a matter to be handled by the religious authorities.
By now, it’s practically required by law to compare Iyer’s work to Beckett and Bernhard, and while those comparisons are surely accurate, there is also something new and intriguing in Iyer’s framing. Lars is a first-person narrator who almost never gets to speak for himself — he is primarily occupied with reporting W.’s alternating self-loathing and Lars-loathing, in a strange mix of free indirect discourse and direct quotation. The result is a strangely co-narrated novel, one that seems to grow directly out of the dysfunctional dynamic of the friendship, which — perhaps like the damp — takes on a life of its own beyond the control of either partner. Unexpectedly, however, the result of this claustrophobic framing is that the despair is always leavened by a certain hope or even sincerity.
Dogma extends and exacerbates this dynamic while adding something that is mostly absent from Spurious: namely, actual events. Lars and W. go to America, for example, they develop their own ascetic philosophy of writing based on Dogme 95 (the inspiration for the title), and a tragedy befalls W. This greater range of action naturally produces a greater range of topics for W.’s analysis — in addition to commenting on Rosenzweig, Cohen, and Bela Tarr, he now holds forth on downtown Nashville (made up entirely of car parks), on the disturbing effect of America’s low clothing prices, on the process of trying and failing to give up a mean addiction to Civilization 4. The result is a work that is funnier and ultimately more appealling than Spurious, one that I hope will hook even more people into Iyer’s fractured vision.