cover image Wittgenstein Jr

Wittgenstein Jr

Lars Iyer. Melville House (Random, dist.), $23.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-61219-376-2

Fresh from his acclaimed Spurious Trilogy (Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus), Iyer mines the history of Western philosophy in this unlikely fusion of a campus novel with high slapstick. Set at Cambridge, the story concerns a contemporary philosophy professor whose life and manners mirror the famous logician Ludwig Wittgenstein. A figure of fascination for a tight-knit circle of baffled undergrads who christen him “Wittgenstein,” he is a larger-than-life malcontent whose hatred for Cambridge, bizarre lessons, and typically gnomic pronouncements (“I have no intention of making myself understood”) set the tone for the usual series of higher-ed initiations. Preppy Ede teeters between love and despair, druggy Scroggins imbibes a catastrophic amount of ketamine, pretentious Titmuss is transfigured in India during his gap year, and outsider Peters deals both with his budding sexuality and the increasing commercialism on campus. But above it all presides their teacher, whose private pain and peculiar genius is the stuff of both light parody and heartbreaking tragedy. Through his class—and his example—the novel’s novice schoolboys learn more than rhetoric; they come face to face with the reality they long for. Like an upbeat, comic version of a Thomas Bernhard novel, the book occasionally exhausts its central joke but scores points for its outstanding strangeness, its rapid dialogue, and, of course, its grotesque, man-out-of-time hero-philosopher. Iyer already has a reputation for combining brainy dialogue with madcap action, but the triumph of his latest (and best) novel is that the cartoon turns out to have real substance. (Sept.)