'Product Placement'. Review of Exodus by Richard Jeffery in the Times Literary Supplement, 15th March 2013:
'To say that Literature is dead is both empirically false and intuitively true', wrote Lars Iyer in a manifesto released last year entitled 'Nude in Your Hote Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestos)'. Despite the current abundance of writers and novels, declared Iyer, the disappearance of the last traces of modernist antagonism and tension represented a kind of apocalypse for fiction: 'Literature has become a pantomime of itself ... prose has become another product: pleasurable, noteable, exquisite, laborious, respected, but always small'. Long past the point of exhaustion, all that remains for the literary author is to mark 'the absence of Hope, of Belief, of Commitments, of high-flown Seriousness', and to write instead about 'a kind of hope that was once possible as Literature, as Politics, as Life, but that is no longer possible for us'.
The pomposity of the manifest is certainly something of a joke (a parody of the kind of radical avant-garde statements nobody takes seriously any more), but the message isn't meant to be facetious. Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and in both his manifesto and accompanying trilogy of bleakly comic novels - of which Exodus is the third - one of the principal questions is whether a longing for seriousness in art or philosophy today can be made to transcend farce.
The trilogy stars W. and Lars, two minor academic philosophers who spend their time travelling around Britain and America on an interminable circuit of university conferences, debating and drinking excessively along the way. Spurious (2011) and Dogma (reviewed in the TLS, April 13, 2012) were the first two installments in the series, but each book more or less stands on its own. Lars is the narrator, though he has hardly anything to say for himself. W. is the more magniloquent of the pair, given to impassioned outbursts on everything from Kierkegaard to Monsieur Chouchani to the futility of intellectual life under modern capitalism. Exodus takes place against the steady marketization of British universities, which is treated as a matter of despair and disgust. 'The language of the Last Days is wholly appropriate to our times', observes W., who copes with his sense of doom by relentlessly belittling Lars, who then narrates this belittlement to us, so that in the end most of what we're given is a picture of Lars through the medium of abuse: '"Do you think obesity gives you gravitas? Presence?" He pauses. 'At what stage would you consider gastric bypass surgery?'". It's a vaguely Beckettian double act, one that might be intended to resemble the intellectual bad conscience Iyer evokes in his manifesto.Iyer's trilogy began life as a series of blog posts, and this makes it easy to see why the books take the shape they do: a succession of compact, almost interchangeable episodes that can be entertaining in small bursts. One can sympathize heavily with the ideas that animate Iyer's fiction, but Exodus can't have taken long to write, and it shows. Close to plotless, and too flimsy for any real engagement with the philosophers it cites, the book lives and dies on how much the reader enjoys Lars and W.'s idiots-in-the-end-time routine. The problem is that this quickly falls into a predictable rhythm, leaving Exodus in the awkward position of being neither sufficiently serious nor sufficiently entertaining