Last Clowns Dancing
Melville House Publishing
The campus novels of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge express a certain scepticism about thought, the same kind of scepticism they have towards love. There’s no such thing as thought, only the proofs and forms of thought—proofs like an academic job, and spending hours hunched over a library book, and talking, either in the sense of ‘giving talks’ or of the delicate bullshit dance of intellectual seduction: a prelude to real seduction and a mirage of masculine power. Sex is the end and really anything else is a means to get to it. Thought, in other words, is spurious.
Lars Iyer’s trilogy of academic novels almost falls into the same category. Lars and W., his protagonists, do have jobs (just about) and they do read books (or try to) and they do give talks (to the disappointment of their audiences). But they don’t live in Lucky Jim’s world. They live in a world of STEM, and HEFCE, and the REF, and impact assessment, a world of closing departments and shrivelling budgets, and of the inexorable and not-all-that-slow death of whatever cultural and institutional cachet the performance of thought once had. If the protagonists in Amis and Lodge are the wise fools who reveal the hollowness behind a seemingly intact edifice, Lars and W. are the last clowns dancing as the circus tent collapses.
In Spurious, Iyer’s first novel, this collapse takes a local form: the disintegration of Lars’ Newcastle flat as it is consumed by damp and mould. Lars’ mould is a mould of almost sentient, almost spiritual proportions. “Sometimes I think the damp is receding,” Lars tells W. “Of course, I’m also worried that the damp is returning to itself to regather its strength […] No doubt the damp is regathering itself to return, I tell W., with more force, with more splendour, and with new and splendid spores to send into the air.” Almost all of the trilogy takes the form of this sort of indirect reported speech. It is W’s testament according to Lars, or the record of W.’s friendship: his abuse. For there is a force more powerful than damp, W. says, and that is the force of Lars’ stupidity.
“My idiocy is theological, W. tells me,” (they are philosophers, or perhaps theologians, Lars and W., with interests in Jewish mysticism, Kafka, messianism, and, later, mathematics, Hindu mythology, Kierkegaard). “It is vast, omnipresent.” W.’s account of Lars’ idiocy is the spine of the trilogy. Beginning as a blog, Iyer’s novels are not subject to the constraint of plot. Rather, they are a series of iterations, barely episodes but moments, which continually reveal their own diagnosis, “the disaster has already happened.” The trilogy is not so much apocalyptic as post-apocalyptic. It is not so much a novel of despair as a parody of the language of despair, a parody of the idea that profundity might provide solace in tragedy, a parody of profundity itself.
A Lars Iyer prose generator is as easy to imagine as a Slavoj Žižek prose generator. Its hall-marks would be not only repetition, but the rhetorical question (“What is it, in him, that desires his destruction?”), and the repetition of the rhetorical question (“What traces will we leave? What will be our immortality?”). It would occasionally italicise. It would say, your stupidity is like the snow, without substance and without end, disappearing as it touches the ground. Your stupidity is like the ground. Immovable, it would say. Impervious. And where would we walk if not for your immovable stupidity? How would we make snow-angels on the roundabout by Plymouth University?
By Exodus, the scale of Iyer’s enterprise has increased, and what was a taut and balanced book in Spurious has given way to a loose, episodic epic. The scope of our vision of the disaster has shifted, from the confines of Lars’ infested flat, to the political contours of contemporary Britain. W. has lost his job, and had it reinstated on a technicality. Now, his entire department is threatened with closure. Why has Lars escaped? Because he has transformed himself into a machine of administration. He has become part of the 21st-century university, the hideous nightmare of which only the faintest beginnings were dreamed by Amis and Lodge. In this book, Lars’ vast, omnipresent idiocy is only an incarnation of the still vaster and more omnipresent idiocy of capitalism.
Neither a lecture tour in America, nor a summer conference in Oxford, offer respite. “The rough beast is slouching towards Oxford, too. For a time it will be permitted to continue, this façade of old England, this façade of research. But it is coming, the privatisation of thought, and not even Oxford will resist it.” At their conferences, which take place in a rented-out St Hilda’s College, there are roll-calls of the great and good in the world of contemporary philosophy. “Where’s Žižek off to?, we wonder. He must have better things to do than hang around Oxford, we agree.” “The conference dinner. Alain Badiou, sitting all alone […] But why should Alain Badiou want to speak to us?” Each name dropped—and there are many names in Iyer’s books—is the ghost of a possible philosophy, possible thought. And that is where these novels differ from the old campus farce, for their struggle against seductive hope is never won.
Lars and W. embody a dialectic of innocence and experience, stupidity and intellect, despair and faith, but in the nature of that dialectic there is no telling which is actually which. Who is even telling this story? While Lars is our narrator, most of what he tells us is in the indirect voice of W. It is W. who diagnoses the ills of the world through his friend, W. who continually turns his face away from the banal politicking of the academy towards the promise of a real politics. W. remembers the Essex postgraduates, W. was an Essex postgraduate. “Thought was life. Thought was their lives. They were remade in thought’s crucible. They flared up renewed from thought’s fire.” But when W.’s Plymouth postgraduates rise in occupation, they are indistinguishable from a bunch of drunk and rambling students passing out, one by one, on the lawn, while a single security guard watches.
The disaster has already taken place. Thatcher, capitalism, the death of thought, and the destruction of the universities has already been thoroughly accomplished. Fat, stupid Lars, in his blousy shirts, with his administrative acumen, his bad books, is only its echo, its resonance. This trilogy, the act of writing, of writing novels(!), is only its afterglow. Yet Lars still chooses to give account of his friend W., his doomed friend, whose faith in thought is still more foolish than his own foolishness. Iyer has said that he wanted to use these books to see W. hoisted by his own petard. But it is possible to read them on W.’s side, and therefore on the side of hope, and politics, and thought. It is possible to read them as a love letter to W. himself. “What faith I show! In him! In us!” Lars reports W. saying in Exodus:
In the many things we can supposedly accomplish together! Of course, it’s all for nothing, W. says. He knows it and I should know it. Indeed, I do know it. Only, something in me also knows otherwise. Something remains in me of an unthwarted faith, and this is the key to my charm.
Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is executive editor at the Oxonian Review.