Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene

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Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it. This is widely known and acknowledged — even on this very site, by both the great Sonya Chung and Julia Fierro. We’re all so tuned into its legendary badness that even relatively minor offenses in the realm of sex writing annoy us far more than other writerly transgressions. An imperfect depiction of sex is far worse for some reason than an inept description of someone entering a room or having a marital spat or whatever other things a book might get wrong without anyone disapproving quite so mercilessly.

There is sufficient scorn for bad sex writing that the Literary Review famously awards an annual prize for it. Though “prize” seems like a funny term for becoming the object of public ridicule and mockery. It’s a missing component of the human brain, the ability to recognize one’s own completely botched attempts at writing about penetration, blow jobs, and the rest of it. Most writers, one must assume, push themselves away from their desks at the end of their earnest writing sessions and think to themselves, Job well done. Only to discover a few months or years later that they have gone and humiliated themselves, at least according to a bunch of smug bastards on the other side of the ocean.

Which isn’t to say I’m not in sympathy with the smug bastards. In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, “What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.” There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets, and the women are keeping their breasts covered, and everyone is obviously faking their orgasms and not getting what they want. And you know that the movie is probably about a breakup that hasn’t happened yet but soon will.

The other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm. Often, the players in these scenes remain largely clothed, too ravenous for one another’s genitals to waste time undressing. They merely make a path towards penetration, him through his fly, her with underwear stretched between her thighs or, better yet, ripped and lying in tatters nearby. This type of sex scene is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in which the two (needless to say, gorgeous) leads have a ferocious and impassioned sexual encounter on a wooden staircase — quite possibly the worst place on the planet to have sex. The only version of this scene I could find on YouTube is dubbed in another language, but the familiarity of such brutal fucking transcends language, and should be familiar to anyone who sees it.

Though my own sex scenes weren’t written with titillation in mind, if I had to choose a point of inspiration for them, a certain kind of amateur pornography comes closest, the kind where you actually believe they’ve forgotten the camera is there, and the effect is that of a documentary. Or maybe even hidden camera porn, where one guy seems to know they’re being recorded, but the other fellow seems not to know. And they experience a kind of typical sex exchange that feels true somehow. Even thought it’s not, of course, true at all, and might in fact be so deceptive as to be unethical and/or illegal. The ordinariness of their interaction is what is so striking. Stripped of performance and professional lighting, moments like these can never be accused of the most common pitfalls of bad sex writing: pretension, mushiness, cornball romance, those absurd oh-yeah-you-like-that-don’t-you, uh-huh-you-know-I-do-big-daddy exchanges.

While I am somewhat in sympathy with the smug bastards calling out the writers who do it badly, I experience an even greater depth of fellow feeling for those who have tried to get it right and failed. Because it’s really hard getting it right, if it can be done at all. Everyone knows what sex is like, and we all know that, almost always, something’s off in the way it’s described on the page. How seldom it is truly captured — the physical sensation, the feelings, the smells. Yes, there are smells! Tasteful writers don’t mention them, but they’re there, and they can fill a room. And this — gentility — is perhaps the worst offense of all when writing about sex. How can you take me there if the word “loins” is used even once? How can you take me there if you won’t admit that there are smells? And pubic hairs that must occasionally be plucked from the tip of your tongue or hocked up discreetly in the shower sometime later.

I’m no different than anyone else who has waded into this treacherous territory. I’m quite happy with my sex scenes. I think they’re just terrific, actually. I think they’re right in their frankness, in their zooming in and zooming out. In the smells they attempt to conjure and fan out at readers from the page, however subtly. I think they capture something real and true. But we all know what the odds say about the likelihood of their success. Take the Magic Eight Ball in hand, give it a shake, and ask the question. Wait a moment for the answer to bob up through inky, blue waters and flatten against the window. “Outlook not so good.”

A Perfect Dose of Humor and Insight: On Rick Moody’s ‘Hotels of North America’

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Rick Moody’s fifth novel, Hotels of North America, written as a series of reviews of inns and motels, appears at first glance to epitomize the term “high concept.” I recoiled when I realized the setup, as I always do when confronted with these kinds of projects. “It’s Moby-Dick retold in tweets!” people say, as if having come up such an idea makes its presence on Earth worthwhile. “It’s a movie about a chronic cheat who, thanks to his son’s birthday wish, can’t tell a lie!” I feel I’ve suffered through it having only heard the logline. I’ve always believed that books based on this kind of gimmickry beg to be judged more harshly than all others, and it takes either a certain kind of courage or a certain kind of obliviousness even to attempt one.

Like all reviews, the ones in Hotels of North America say less about what they purport to appraise than they do about than the appraiser himself. In this case, the author claims to be an itinerant, middle-aged man who makes his living as a motivational speaker and, as the book progresses, as a Top Reviewer for RateYourLodging.com, from which the content of the book is supposedly drawn. I say “claims,” because his true identity is called into question, first by commenters on the site, to whose suspicions he replies — “Again, I have to address briefly the idea that I am not who I say I am, a line of argument fomented by KoWojahk283 and by TigerBooty!, but not exclusively by them.” — and second by Rick Moody himself, who in an afterword claims to have become fixated on finding the reviews’ true creator, who goes by the name Reginald Edward Morse.

The eloquent author of said reviews frequently deviates into full-on brilliance as he writes about all things lodging related and non-lodging related in a series of 37 dispatches penned wherever he happens to be staying at the time of his writing, on the subject of wherever he was staying during the significant events of his life, starting as early as his first childhood experience staying in a hotel. That entry — titled in the style of all of the book’s sections: “The Plaza Hotel, 768 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, December 27, 1970-January 2, 1971” — marks one of the author’s rare “four star” stays.

Most of them don’t rank so well. Take for instance, “La Quinta Inn, 4122 McFarland Boulevard East, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, January 5-9, 2002,” a place so grim that Reginald resorts to medication. “The list of Ambien side effects,” he writes, “includes headache, depression, sleepiness, and profound personality change, and nearly all of the literature suggests that you should call your doctor if, while taking Ambien, you have a profound personality change, but the question, in this rearview mirror, is whether the profound personality change I experienced in La Quinta in Tuscaloosa was caused by the Ambien or by the La Quinta itself. For example, the interior decorating of La Quinta could in fact cause profound personality change, as this decorating had a nauseating insistence on what I like to call Mexican pastels.” The “review” goes on from there, finally settling on a one-star rating.

In general, Reginald is most likely to be found boarding at inns averaging, by his own rating, only two stars. And not only inns. He (sometimes joined by his girlfriend, K.) can also be found, during low points, staying overnight at Union Station, am Ikea Parking Lot, and Sid’s Hardware. Wherever he roams, he reviews not only the beds, keys, clerks, and lobby cookies (“I adamantly oppose the attempt to buy hotel allegiance with cookies.”), but also his collapsing life itself, a past marriage and affair, fatherhood, and which short con works best when it comes to getting early check-ins and discounts, or for skipping out on the bill entirely. Though Reginald is not a man notable for his high ethical standards — in fact, he’s sort of terrible — he is undeniably funny. In describing the disappointing cookie from the first section titled “Dupont Embassy Row, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC, October 31-November 2, 2010,” Reginald writes, “So as K. and I walked out of the Dupont to try to find a steak joint in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, we broke the complimentary cookie obtained in the lobby into small pieces and flung it over the fence of the Indonesian embassy, thinking that the scheming and warlike Indonesians were probably out at the time, and in the event that the Indonesians had not fed their local squirrels.”

I am not a seeker of funny books, nor do I look to fiction for laffs, or even laughs, but this book had me giggling so often and so loudly that I began to annoy the person with whom I dwell. Reading Hotels of North America as I did, over the course of two days, seemed the perfect dose of humor and insight. All comic novels should aspire to such heights.

I braced myself for the downhill slide with every new chapter, aware of the notorious difficulty involved in keeping artistic gimmicks from going stale, but my interest and investment only deepened as the novel wore on, as Moody revealed not only a man, but an entire culture through these scattered fragments that mirror the workings of memory and of real day-to-day living. Four out four stars.

The Voice Trap: On the Perils of Authorial Parochialism

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In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment”[1] in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn’t appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn’t that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn’t think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.”

I didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy.

It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice.

Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win.

Like everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or — more to the point — not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so…well, so similar to his others.

I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off.

I’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend — picture a lazier version of a book club — I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones.

I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like.

Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here:
Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in.

One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’
Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer.

But that sameness — it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump?

Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction?

It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME’s list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy.

Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques.

Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing:
There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver’s first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal…But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel…The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.
The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn’t need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.”

J.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with — because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same.

To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born.

Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do.

The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career.

Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it.

[1] The piece was later republished as “Big Red Son” in his collection Consider the Lobster.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers

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On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.

In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.

The potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.

  What’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?

No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.

Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20—which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.

Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible—even likely, perhaps—that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.

This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson—also name-checked by King—has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?

Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.

With some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.

The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above—King included—whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.

It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.

King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”

And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t—with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.

I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.

So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.

Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.

Two Brits Stew: Lars Iyer’s Dogma

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Dogma is the second in a projected trilogy by Lars Iyer. Like its predecessor, Spurious, this book is surreal, brainy, plotless, and arguably pointless. It is also brilliantly written and very funny. The only problem is that, in wondering who else might enjoy it, I couldn’t think of anyone I know to whom I could give an unqualified recommendation. True, that might suggest something about the kind of people I hang around with, but I can’t help noticing that it suggests something about these books too. They’re certainly not for everyone. In fact, I fear that relating to these characters might be a warning — the fading canary in the mental health coalmine.

Dogma, like Spurious, is told entirely through the interactions of Lars and W., a pair of philosophy lecturers and writers locked in a strange semblance of friendship. Though they live on opposite sides of England, they have frequent phone calls, visit each other, and even travel together. Sometimes W.’s girlfriend Sal is in tow, but it’s usually just the two of them, operating like a combination between Waiting for Godot and Withnail and I.

Early on, the men embark on a lecture tour of the southern United States, and it appears for a flickering moment that the book might contain a beginning, middle, and end. Maybe character arcs too. But that plotline goes cold pretty quickly. Iyer isn’t interested in starting in one place and ending up in another. Instead of developing, his characters circle the drain — a fitting arrangement for a pair who obsess about entropy while seemingly doing their best to embody the concept.

They share an incredible inventory of obsessions: the end of the world, the connection between religion and capitalism. They love the mysterious Texan musician Jandek and the slightly less weird Texan musician Josh T. Pearson. W. can’t stop talking about Franz Rosenzweig, and frequently wonders if God’s existence can be proven through higher mathematics read in the original German. They obsess over the relationship between Kafka and Max Brod, the friend who made Kafka posthumously famous, repeatedly asking of themselves and one another which of them might be Kafka to the other’s Brod. W. can’t stop talking about the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, and, in particular the film Werckmeister Harmonies.

This isn’t merely a list of preoccupations. They’re practically fetishes, ground to be covered again and again. Repetition is somehow key to Iyer’s project. When the men decide to start a new intellectual movement of somewhat unclear underpinnings and call it “Dogma,” W. devises the rules and then repeats them, revising and elaborating on them. The effect of so much repetition is that the sequence of the book — which is divided into many small sections of just a few pages each — is all but irrelevant. Dogma reads almost like a collage, a fitting style for a book more concerned with philosophy than narrative.

Ideas drive everything. Lars and W.’s biggest fear is that they are cursed with the ability to recognize and appreciate important intellectual contributions, but are unable to make significant contributions of their own. Or — somewhat more poignantly — they fear they’ve actually had their great ideas and forgotten them, or that their great ideas passed in conversation without either of them realizing it. The reader is put in the position of wondering the same thing as he reads. Have I missed the point in all this?

Iyer employs the first-person perspective with fantastic flair and originality. The narrator, Lars, reveals himself almost exclusively through the words of his friend and says practically nothing about himself directly. It would be challenging, if not impossible, to find a page in Dogma which does not contain the words “W. says.” This narrative choice is especially interesting given that W.’s primary mode of communication with Lars is scathing criticism, of his weight, his clothes, this apathy, his failure to do good work or to think deeply. In a late scene, W. wishes for Lars to join him at a meeting with his employers, with whom he has developed an adversarial relationship. “Why not take a lawyer, I ask him. He’s allowed to. No, he wants the equivalent of an idiot child, W. says. He wants the equivalent of a diseased ape with scabs round his mouth throwing faeces around the room….Did you see who he had with him?, they’ll say. What he had with him? My God, we shouldn’t make his life any worse: that’s what they’ll say, W. says. And perhaps then they’ll show mercy.” Relentless and very funny, the abuse never seems to bother Lars, who receives it in a state of either bemusement or agreement — it’s never clear which.

When, years ago, Roger Ebert reviewed W.’s favorite movie, Werckmeister Harmonies, he described it as “maddening if you are not in sympathy with it, mesmerizing if you are.” It’s a perfect characterization of Dogma’s protagonists. “We’ve become strange, W. says. We’ve spent too much time in each other’s company… We’re no longer fit for human society, W. says.” He’s almost right, I’m afraid. But not quite. I don’t know who else might like this strange book as much as I did, but, as for me, I can’t wait for the third.

Previously: Mold, Gin, and the Apocalypse: Lars Iyer’s Spurious