Nietzsche and the Burbs, by Lars Iyer, Melville House, 320 pp, $16.99, ISBN: 978-1612198125
What happens at the end of the novel? Does the novel die? Can it become obsolete? (Perhaps it already has.) Maybe the novel has just gone straight, found a steady job and settled down to its well-kept rooms, a manicured lawn and laminate flooring. The long-lamented ubiquity of the “realist” mode of fiction, a kind of kitsch Victoriana, would certainly suggest this to be the case. Realism here narrowly-defined as a kind of seamless effacement of the narrative boundary, a text designed to facilitate the most placid segue from one world to another, diverting any critical attention away from the act of transformation, the suspension of awareness. Lars Iyer’s first three novels were a welcome antidote to such rehashings, which extend like suburbs from bargain airport fiction to prize-winning “literary” monstrosities. In Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, a fictionalised Lars and his companion W. drank and talked their way through the end times, finding what little community could be left among a world in ruins: a friendship capable of temporarily suspending the spread of rot and the teeth of rats (the apocalypse, like the rest of the hypertrophic world of capitalism, being just another disappointment).
Iyer’s new novel, Nietzsche and the Burbs, like his previous book Wittgenstein Jr, continues this project of philosophical comedy and, in the same manner, does so through the creation of a doppelgänger, a reanimation of a prominent thinker. The book follows the exploits of a group of nihilistic teens in the Wokingham suburbs as they head towards their final school exams. A new student joins their class, a boy with NIHILISM scrawled across his notebook and a blog full of quotes from Emil Cioran and Samuel Beckett. One of the group, Paula, notices that the new boy in class bears a striking resemblance to a certain moustachioed German philosopher (minus the moustache) and the gang dub him Nietzsche. They eventually manage to convince Nietzsche to become the singer of their band, now renamed Nietzsche and the Burbs. As the end of term approaches, the group wrestle with the tumult of teenage life and strangulating landscape of Wokingham, the inevitable economic and geological apocalypse, and their impending first gig at a Reading open mic night. These forces are in no way discrete events but a whirl of interwoven and overlapping currents, feeding and fuelling, destroying and derailing one another at every turn.
The novel’s narrator, Chandra, along with Paula, Art and Merv, pulse with this juddering energy, talking with, over and through one another like a dissonant chorus. The new boy, Nietzsche, joins them, forever pushing their conclusions beyond their bounds:
The Old Mole, with graphs. The rise of stocks. The fall of government bonds. The continual inflation of the housing bubble.
The Old Mole, asking what the graphs might mean.
Global economic collapse, miss, Paula says.|
The Old Mole, looking up from her despair.
Hyperinflation, then new Weimar, possibly a new Hitler, miss, Art says.
Stagflation, then another world war, to boost production, leading to mutually assured destruction, miss, I say.
The new boy, hand raised.
The Old Mole, nodding.
The New boy: Nothing.
The Old Mole, no longer nodding: Nothing!?
The new boy: Let it all come down.
Around the group and their elected leader orbit a maelstrom of caricatures and semi-mythological bullies, Sirens, and faceless drudges, as well as ineffectual and equally doomed faculty members. Mr Merriweather, purveyor of philosophy as wellness. The Old Mole, shadow of a failed orthodox Marxism. Mr Zachary: depressed environmentalist. Mr Varga in the corner, reading Bernhard. Mr Varga, his attention elsewhere. Mr Varga, mysteriously out of place. The novel revels in repetition, hyperbole and disillusion. The voices pulse against one another and harmonise, creating waves of humour and absurdity, speech flaring and subsiding, saying and not saying, cascading and undoing.
The landscape of desolation which the group are so desperate to overcome, to destroy and kick back against, the suburbs, is a middle class ubiquity that stretches over every horizon. It is an all-devouring stasis, enervating everything in its path. In such a situation philosophy, which the five discuss constantly, is in no better condition than the novel, seeming entirely ill-equipped to face the proliferating void. The suburbs “defeat philosophy”. Even distraction proves impossible. The attempts the gang make to escape from that which encloses them: drugs, drinking, riding around on bikes, all eventually come up short. Nothing seems capable of serving as a container for any kind of meaning, and so the gang pour their meaning into nothing. Nietzsche, as one might expect, takes this nothing more seriously. The only one of the group who does not wish to escape, for Nietzsche the condition of the suburbs is something which has to be gone through; one has to study the suburbs, become saturated in them. The suburbs are “complete obviousness” where “everything has already taken place”; they are the only place where nihilism can be “truly encountered”. Here then lies a kind of destructive creation, a “striving for nullity, for insignificance”.
The one outlet which brings them together, in which they find value, music, is still beset by problems; crushed by the suburbs, by the unoriginality of the present. Their moments of musical invention tend toward either dull abomination or accidental plagiarism until something switches, propelled by Nietzsche’s half-whispered vocals:
Vocalese. Glossolalia. Nonsense syllables […]
Supersoft sound. Microscopic. Ocean Arcadia …
Warm marimba pulses. Warm laptop beeps. Ocean-warm synth. Upper-waters synth, sun-warmed, balmy. Blue-in-blue waters; light on the wave-crests. The waves, working. The waters, rocking. All things borne. All things accepted. All things shining. All life, all death.
The one weapon they have, the one convergence, is Nietzsche’s indeterminate song: both something and nothing, silence and speech.
This paradox of radical confluence and stultification, explosivity and nothing, and boredom, is, of course, also part of the pervasive atmosphere of being a teenager. It is a time of burgeoning potentiality and intensity but also of disaffection and cynicism. Chandra’s observation about the reciprocity between philosophy and adolescence is an astute one and such an emotive surface could not be more suitably attuned for Nietzsche’s philosophy and its declarative, exhilarating excess; the very expression of opposites that are neither inviolably oppositional nor resolvable in synthesis. Nietzsche and the Burbs does an excellent job of allowing such parallels to develop. The end of school is an exhaustion of the world of childhood, a moment of renewal which is both resisted and longed for, and a desperation for a mode of being which is not just more of the same. In this way adolescence displays something of Nietzsche’s overman: a potentiality within the human condition, the restless possibility of humankind to reach beyond itself. The world of Wokingham conversely is a realm of the last man, the being of comfort, contented health and unyielding stasis. Iyer’s task however is not to write a Nietzschean novel. That task would only be possible (if at all) if literature were still possible, if fiction’s capacity to mean something still burned with even a flicker of (eternal) flame. Instead the elements of the book shift and swirl through affirmation and deterioration, potency and exhaustion. These are not codes which can be cracked, masks which can reveal something hidden underneath.
The desire then, for a triumph, for a harnessing of the suburbs, of taming it, even through music, proves impossible. The gig in Reading ends up being something of a failure. Nietzsche has another mental breakdown and collapses. The band dissolves on the spot and the support act, Merv and his lover Bill’s disco revival act Dancin’ Star, is the real hit. It’s lacking portent and grand themes, it’s fun. It is also, of course, closer in spirit to Nietzsche’s, or his own marionette Zarathustra’s, vision: he could never trust a God that didn’t know how to dance. Even the movement between language and silence, that dark and whispering song, cannot defeat the suburbs. All that can be done is to stand by the abyss and laugh.
These elements and others come together to make Nietzsche and the Burbs, in large part, hilarious, powerful and intensely enjoyable. The one place where the book occasionally falls flat however is precisely on the question of rhythm, of music. The lack of distinction between certain characters, particularly between the narrator, Chandra, and other members of the group, tends to flatten the tone of the novel not into a disconcerting thrum but rather something that can feel constricted, tiring. The gang can dance, but only to the same tune. This often means that, given the episodic structure of the novel, the experience of reading is one analogous to looking at a series of photographs: well composed, provoking and dynamic in isolation but collectively static. The condition of the suburbs thereby becomes unwittingly displaced onto the textual fabric of the work and undercuts the potency of its laughter. This is, in part, the risk of Iyer’s mode of writing. By laughing too easily, too heartily, at the void, by failing to give accordance to the dead world of meaning/verisimilitude one risks failing to invest enough faith in the abyss that is the very source of the laughter, potentially leaving it with a note that is hollow, or worse, comfortable. This is partly the effect of the excess of parody in the supporting cast and narrative flattening: they leave the space of Wokingham as something less like a proliferating emptiness and more like a prop, something to be used to represent the void. Its horror is endlessly discussed, but rarely felt.
Ultimately Nietzsche and the Burbs, like Iyer’s other work, is a novel that pushes away from the heaviness and satisfaction of much contemporary fiction, with passion, wit, and a combination of philosophical depth and comedic play that are engaging, frequently brilliant, joyous. Unlike the very best of his fiction, the content and form of the work sometimes detract from one another’s effect, and the contracted literary space provides too little a world for its inhabitants to kick against.
Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of Books, Gorse, Aeon, Music and Literature and the Irish Post among others. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag