Intoxication Without the Sex: Thoughts on Lars Iyer’s Dogma

As you no doubt already know, the heroes of Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious recently returned for another round. Too bad for poor W., Dogma goes the way of a downward spiral. Ah, I’m sorry, I’m supposed to alert the unsuspecting reader of spoilers, aren’t I, and then tuck them under the fold. If you fear further insensitivity, rest easy, it won’t happen again. For indeed, what strikes me as interesting about Dogma is that there is remarkably little else for a reviewer to release prematurely.

This is, for those who keep score of such things, of a piece with Iyer’s much discussed literary manifesto declaring the end of literature. Or certainly our response to its demise. Do we, for example, dare look for who has bloodied hands, since we may not have cleaned all well under our own fingernails? Might we eat the corpse, and attempt to find nourishment from the decaying heap at out feet? Or is it better to leave the dead for the dead, and find something else entirely to occupy our attention? However we choose, there is no avoiding the fact that something has been lost. How, then, to appreciate the abyss without falling in it is the question.

In addition to the  humor that Iyer brings to his novels — of which there is plenty, and is itself more than enough reason to read and enjoy — there is a philosophical bassline at work that may be justifiably ignored or unnoticed by a reader but is nevertheless crucial to the works as a whole.  There may be no literary vanguard, as Iyer insists in his manifesto, and thus no movements to maintain or police; but as long as there are discrete works like Dogma, which require contracts to be signed if not much money exchanged and that result  in volumes being published if not necessarily read, these will adhere to the rules they set for themselves. (E.g., The Dogme 95 rules laid out by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and inspirational for Iyer’s heroes.) The rules that W. and Lars develop for their conference presentations proliferate in wonderfully absurd, often contradictory ways, and are born from a spirit of profound (because problematic) lament for that nameless thing that lives as a festering loss. It is this sense of mourning that distinguishes the absence of belief from an atheistic disbelief — nor is it the vapid “I wish I could believe” of agnosticism, but rather the more terrifying notion that the objects of old belief, those things that conferred hope and dignity, etc., vacated themselves on account of their shit-poor believers.

As much as W. and Lars might want to wait out the apocalyptic closure of the old that brings in the new, corpses take a while to decay you know, Iyer’s heroes are smart enough to know they might be too dim to tell the difference.

Or perhaps, W. muses, we’re souls waiting to be reborn. Perhaps this is a great waiting room; this, the time before a dentist’s appointment, when nothing very important happens: we leaf through a magazine, we gaze out the window.

But they’ve forgotten to call our names, haven’t they? They’ve forgotten we are here, in the eternal waiting room. We’ve been left to ourselves, like abandoned children. And our seriousness is only a sham seriousness; our apocalypticism is only a kind of dressing up; and all our books, all our philosophies, are only articles in some gossip magazine . . . . (p. 174)

There is, however, a fool-proof quality to this lament — to its analyses of the past (i.e., what was lost), insights into the present (i.e., how we respond), and visions of the future (i.e., a miscegenation of the past & present) — that gives me considerable pause. If doom is proven true, the lament is vindicated; and if it is not, well, you reap the reward of not being doomed. Of course, W. and Lars would point out that the doom they lament is such that it is both very much here but never quite now; that, in fact, even our current foretastes of it may not be adequate hors d’oeuvres of what is to come. The uncertainty reaches even to them: they cannot even be sure if their sincerity on the subject isn’t itself a sham.

If this is the case, all one has really is the posture of lament. Left with neither joy nor sorry, all that remains are the repetitions of gloom and palliative consolations; namely, for W. and Lars, drink and conversation while slouched over a bar. What I find interesting about this repetition, in light of Iyer’s manifesto concerning literature, is that it occurs purely for the enjoyment of others. We, the mostly university educated, some of  us vaguely professorial, derive the sort of pleasure these repetitions are patently designed in the book to avoid.

This doesn’t, of course, make us bad readers or the repetitions of lament disingenuous. They do, however, turn W. and Lars into literary actors; they become, if you will, natural poseurs.

First rule: Dogma is spartan. Speak as clearly as you can. As simply as you an. . . Do not quote. Address others. Really speak to them, using ordinary language. Ordinary words!

Second rule: Dogma is full of pathos. . . .

Third rule: Dogma is sincere. . . . Aim at maximum sincerity. Burning sincerity. Rending sincerity. (p. 86)

That these are “rules” and thus indicate the very opposite of what they say should not be lost on us. For it is precisely here that the very literary element denied by the performances (and, I might add, Iyer’s manifesto) returns with a vengeance.

Which is to say, there is a craftsmanship even to the most apocalyptic of ends and movement toward even the most final of destinations. Though Iyer’s creative narration in particular, which I discussed in my review of Spurious (and Adam described in his review of  Dogma) indicates an author invested in his craft, he seems intent that we not pay too close attention to that. He is as invested in repetition as his characters, turning it into a blunt force, “showy” sort of style designed to desensitive the reader to its presence. But only so much, of course. Similarly, for all the meandering conversations that tread the same topics in Dogma, there is considerably more physical movement than in Spurious: with a brief adventure in the United States, cameo appearances from other characters, and the undercurrent of W.’s professional doom dragging him down. There thus remains in Iyer’s novels an authorial beginning and a narrative end, even if he remains committed to the notion that the non-narrative middle (the lament of doom) carries the day.

There is an intoxicating quality to Spurious and Dogma. Indeed,  I sometimes believe the entire tale to be that of an intoxicated rant, two friends at a pub (though perhaps a solitary person in the corner, muttering to himself). This is well and good while you’ve drink in hand. But there’s always a final call, isn’t there, and what then? Iyer is content that W. and Lars should merely return for another round. If I have but a single criticism, though, it is that I should like to see what happens when they return home and try to have sex.