Neck & neck with apocalypse
By Anna Aslanyan.
Dogma, Lars Iyer, Melville House 2012
Lars Iyer‘s novel Spurious narrowly lost in the run-up to last year’s Not the Booker Prize – alas, our review failed to notch it up a few votes – but we are now treated to a sequel. Dogma, the second novel in the trilogy, picks up where the first left off, with Lars and W. drinking more Plymouth Gin, going on more trips, talking more about the apocalypse. These conversations reminded me of a secret organisation set up by a group of Czech artists in the 1970s. B.K.S. – Bude konec světa, or The End of the World is Coming – recently had an exhibition in Prague which, in turn, was reminiscent of projects by another respected institution, International Necronautical Society, founded by Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley. (Is it a coincidence that the General Secretary of INS lived in Prague in the 1990s, hanging around with local artists? McCarthy’s scholars, take note.)
Back to Dogma, there are some strong opinions on artists in it. W. is unimpressed by them: “We ought to fine artists rather than subsidise them […]. They ought to be subject to systematic purges. […] [W]e need some kind of Cultural Revolution.” Towards the end of the book, when W. faces a redundancy, it may be seen as a self-fulfilled prophesy if you accept that the boundaries between contemporary art and philosophy have blurred into a fine line of a revolutionary manifesto. For Dogma takes its title from yet another creative group formed by the characters, its commandments including “Rely on emotion as much as on argument. Tear your shirt and pull out your hair” and “Always steal other people’s ideas and claim them as your own.” In fact, there is a plethora of avant-garde movements featuring in the novel; what links them, from OULIPO to Situationists, is the hard-line approach to membership. “Antonin Artaud ate too loudly – expel him from the group! Asger Jörn kept picking his nose – excommunicate him at once!”
The members of Dogma are not as scathing on each other, although W. is highly critical of Lars’ ways – as you would expect him to be on the strength of his remonstrations in Spurious. His moral rectitude and philosophical stance have not changed, and he cuts his friend no slack, forever disciplining him for his faux pas. Lars’ music tastes, his dilapidated flat, his sartorial habits, which include a “vest phase”, are in W.’s cross hairs, as are many wider phenomena, some already familiar to the prequel’s fans. “The British working class guest is an unruly guest”, America learns when the two friends go there on a lecture tour. Moreover, “Britain is not a country of thought […]. The Anglo-Saxon mentality is opposed to abstraction, to metaphysics”.
If Spurious placed great emphasis on beards, leading your reviewer to surmise that they might be a prerequisite for joining a new radical cult, Dogma dispels this illusion with a stark “Barba non facit philosophum. A beard does not make a philosopher.” Does blogging make you a novelist? It certainly works in Iyer’s case. That the books grew out of his popular blog is an essential part of their appeal: they takes their punchy energy from the writer’s online exercises. This, and the ongoing reflections on Kafka’s legacy in Dogma, made me ask the author, “What would Kafka do today?” Iyer wondered what, indeed, he might have done, surrounded by various media platforms. Would Kafka become an avid social networker, promoting himself on Twitter? Would Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis be Facebooked? Or would he be given a regular column at the Guardian to share his trans-species experiences?
One of the advantages of the format Iyer explores is its compactness: the book reads swiftly, making reviewing easier too – there is no point in waxing lyrical for pages when talking about something that can be swallowed in one sitting. If you have a degree in philosophy the process may become more laborious, but luckily, you don’t need one to engage with the ideas bounced around by the errant philosophers. Their ability to cram a lot of argument into a short space may be due to their realisation that the apocalypse really is coming. Beating it this time round, they are prepared to admit: “We won’t be able to die: isn’t that it? The power to die will be taken from us.” Looking forward to the final part of Iyer’s trilogy, the only question I still have is, what will come first, Exodus or the end of the world?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 26th, 2012.