Sunday, March 18, 2012

We were ventriloquised

I wonder if the Lars Iyer of the "Nude in your hot tub, facing the abyss (A literary manifesto after the end of Literature and Manifestos)" would feel either amused or annoyed to know that, as I finished Dogma -- his sequel to Spurious -- I was not thinking so much any more of Flaubert or Beckett or even Laurel and Hardy but of some ribald mixture of very contemporary pairings on Anglophone television: Bernard and Manny in Black Books and Jonathan and Ray in Bored to Death. Picture a Bernard criticising a Manny who can draw like Ray and who will take his gentle, devious revenge in a comic strip -- now book -- that will nonetheless bare the embarrassing innermost obsessions that the character Ray might think invisible and which the illustrator-writer Ray -- the Ray we cannot meet on television -- will chortle about, the tears running down his face until they drip onto his large and necessary belly; picture a W. with the endless, abject hopefulness of a Jonathan somehow mixed with the constant Bernardian invective against his hairier nemesis and sort-of friend. And of course all the alcohol as well as the vermin and the dirt and the damp of the Black Books book shop; and the occasional dream of girls.

And speaking of girls: the Sal character really almost breaks the surface in Dogma this time. She is no Fran of Black Books -- that would completely changed the shape and weighting of the novel -- but she has the other woman's mouth. Indeed, as if commenting on her role in the previous book, as much as on her almost unacknowledged but very ordinary and even crucial role in their American lecture tour -- a tour during which Iyer enjoys evoking the ridiculous dancing chicken from Herzog's Stroszek and the double suicides of Bruno and Ian Curtis (these more anxious and romantic Karl Rossmans):

'You twats', she says, 'why did you leave me behind?'

If it weren't for Sal, we are led to understand, W. and Lars wouldn't have even got as far as they did on their tour. She consents to take photos of W. and Lars larking around for Facebook: did she erase them afterwards as she threw away all the Jandek CDs that Lars had burned for W.? There are no photos of Lars among the many photos of friends, or so we read, on Sal and W.'s walls in their huge, three-level house in Plymouth -- fresh and airy, as it seems after the damp and rats of Lars's flat, and with the seeming perfection of W.'s measured approach to scholarship, as well as everything suggested by Sal and W.'s room (so "calm, generous and large-windowed"). Every morning, as we read in Lars's narrative, W.:

... leaves Sal lying there in the warm bed, and goes to work. Is she impressed by this commitment? -- 'She thinks I'm an idiot', W. says.

Already aware that all is about to be taken from him, W. asks Lars to take photos of the house. W. then takes him around his favourite haunts, "to document his Plymouth years" -- the years during which, as W. suspects, the great "idea" that they might have had could well already have occurred to them but promptly been forgotten in a haze, as we imagine, of stupidity and alcohol. Lars is instructed to remember everything now and write it down: a Ray lashed into obedience by a Bernard who is about to lose his shop (and his legs!).

And yet, behind the Bernard and Manny, and the Jonathan and Ray, there are strong Thomas Bernhardian ideas. W. declares that he has invested hope in the idea of Lars's "salmon-leap... In the opposite direction to my dissoluteness and squalor. In the opposite direction to my compromise and half-measures"-- a great salmon-leap that resonates with the extensive exploration of the "opposite direction" in Gathering Evidence. Then, immediately after a section where W. is ridiculing Lars for threatening to surprise him with what he might have to say if he got the chance, there is a page where it is unclear whether it is Lars or W. who is speaking: where, after asking what Dogma "really meant" and "whether it wasn't greater'' than them, the narrator declares:

In truth, we've had no thoughts. We were ventriloquised; we spoke but not with our own voices. We wept, but they weren't our tears. We felt things, great things, but in what sense were those feelings ours?
W. takes up this theme on the following page, but the question of who is ultimately speaking in this novel remains, and this is a serious question, putting us in mind of Bernhard's eponymous The Voice Imitator, where the only voice that this man cannot imitate is his own.

Overall in Dogma there is a kind of on and on feeling: a Lars and W. running to an infinite number of television series with ever more ridiculous insults and situations, even if it will only be a neat Black Books-sized set of three. It wasn't me -- it was him; stop standing there gaping, stupid! But such is the contention of Dogma; such is the literature, perhaps, "on this side of the mountain" as Lars puts it in his anti-manifesto manifesto: "The stars are going out, and the black sky is indifferent to you and your stupidities." This is what we need to write about, we have to understand from the man in the tub.

At the end of Dogma, there is no "sweetness" of an end. Even death eludes them: not only the "sweetness" of the white-bearded Bhishma's timely death, but also the resounding, heroic/anti-heroic death of an Ian Curtis or even one modelled on the bathos-ridden suicide of Bruno in Stroszek that we might have been expecting from the chicken à la Herzog that was proffered at the beginning of the book (the Iyer equivalent of the Chekhovian gun):

What will he say, I ask W., now that the end has come, the endless end? Will he speak of love? Of friendship? Of the life of thought? He'll speak about me, says W. Of not being able to get rid of me. Of my being here, even now...

It's time to die, says W. But death does not come.

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