Wittgenstein Jr

Overview

The writer Hari Kunzru says “made me feel better about the Apocalypse than I have in ages” is back—with a hilarious coming-of-age love story

The unruly undergraduates at Cambridge have a nickname for their new lecturer: Wittgenstein Jr. He’s a melancholic, tormented genius who seems determined to make them grasp the very essence of philosophical thought.

But Peters—a working-class student surprised to find himself among the elite—soon discovers...

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Wittgenstein Jr

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Overview

The writer Hari Kunzru says “made me feel better about the Apocalypse than I have in ages” is back—with a hilarious coming-of-age love story

The unruly undergraduates at Cambridge have a nickname for their new lecturer: Wittgenstein Jr. He’s a melancholic, tormented genius who seems determined to make them grasp the very essence of philosophical thought.

But Peters—a working-class student surprised to find himself among the elite—soon discovers that there’s no place for logic in a Cambridge overrun by posh boys and picnicking tourists, as England’s greatest university is collapsing under market pressures.

Such a place calls for a derangement of the senses, best achieved by lethal homemade cocktails consumed on Cambridge rooftops, where Peters joins his fellows as they attempt to forget about the void awaiting them after graduation, challenge one another to think so hard they die, and dream about impressing Wittgenstein Jr with one single, noble thought.

And as they scramble to discover what, indeed, they have to gain from the experience, they realize that their teacher is struggling to survive. For Peters, it leads to a surprising turn—and for all of them, a challenge to see how the life of the mind can play out in harsh but hopeful reality.

Combining his trademark wit and sharp brilliance, Wittgenstein Jr is Lars Iyer’s most assured and ambitious novel yet—as impressive, inventive and entertaining as it is extraordinarily stirring.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 07/28/2014
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.)
From the Publisher
“[Iyer] is a deeply elegiac satirist... He manages to both send up intellectual life and movingly lament its erosion."
New York Times

Longlisted for the Folio Prize

“Outstanding... [Iyer] appears to be in the process of creating his own personal genre, one in which the workings of his mind are on display far more brilliantly than anything as piddling as a plot... Almost every individual page is a pleasure, and that is more than enough reason to keep reading him."
Daily Beast

“An absolutely exquisite, elegant novel, with a cadence and rhythm all its own."
Emily St. John Mandel's A Year in Reading, The Millions

“One of the funniest books of the year, this philosophical bildung shows that intellectuality can be poignant, especially when its couched within a campus novel."
Flavorwire, 50 Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014

“Stunning. Wittgenstein Jr. is Iyer’s strongest book to date. He has again managed to write a book that’s funny, unexpected, and profound, and his prose is suffused with a calm beauty."
—Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions

One of BuzzFeed's Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2014

One of GQ's 8 Books You Need to Know in September

“A funny, smart, and somewhat insane campus novel, perfect for anyone’s back-to-school hijinks.”
Flavorwire, 10 Must-Reads for September

“Iyer's prose is never any less stark than it can be, building a sharp momentum that brings the boys and their professor to a surprising yet fitting conclusion."
AskMen.com, Recommended Reading for September

“Depression, sadness, gloom--these three themes permeate the novel, and the subtle prose conveys them with deftness."
PopMatters

Wittgenstein Jr really is very good entertainment -- enjoyable reading, with just the right touch of gravity, good fun, but with a sense of the almost-profound in the shadows."
Complete Review

“Iyer’s lyrical novel unfolds like a prose poem, in fragments and scenes, compressed images and emotion, with rhythm and repetition that pull the reader through the novel... It is at turns a novel about England, the university, youth, madness, philosophy, love, which, when summed up, becomes a coming-of-age novel."
Hamlet Hub

“Fascinating... A doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy with a tone somewhere between Philosophical Investigations and Porterhouse Blue, as a bunch of dreadful modern undergrads struggle to make sense of a tragic, saintlike tutor who is not Wittgenstein, or not exactly."
Sunday Telegraph (UK), Best Books of 2014

“Superbly done… Iyer wins on laughs.”
the Guardian (UK)

One of the Telegraph's Best Novels of the Year!

“One of Britain's best new voices."
The Bookseller (UK), Books of the Year

“A twitchy philosophy professor arrives at Cambridge on the brink of either total enlightenment or a mental breakdown. His new students, a hapless bunch of over-privileged boozers and junkies, turn up to class to observe their tutor’s rambling, paranoid disintegration. All ends well though, with an unexpected spot of non-theoretical romance.”
Verso (UK), Books of the Year

“It isn’t really a novel, or not only a novel. It’s more interesting than that… Iyer has compiled an idiosyncratic – and surprisingly tender – paean to love and learning."
Times Literary Supplement

Wittgenstein Jr is as much a satire on the contemporary academy as it is an existential novel of ideas. But is is also a love story. Ultimately it's a novel about the idea of philosophy, about what Wittgenstein's students call 'the romance of learning' and that all-consuming erotic yearning for knowledge that you sometimes experience as an undergraduate. It is also an elegiac book."
the Telegraph (UK)

“Iyer’s work proposes a visibly different sort of British literature to that which dominates the discourse… The author has set an alternative path for himself, producing books you can read in an afternoon but think about for a year.”
the Independent (UK)

Wittgenstein Jr wants thought to ‘tear out our throats’ and his fulminations against ‘English lawn’ dons who facilitate the monetisation of Cambridge provide the angriest, funniest monologues... Right now, Iyer’s novel insists, utopian thought remains an urgent necessity."
New Statesman (UK)

“Written in Iyer’s now unmistakable musical prose Wittgenstein Jr provides a wonderful character study of one of the greatest philosophers of modern times, a hilarious take on modern life inside academia, a set of profane t-shirt slogans and a whole lot more besides."
The Quietus

“His cartoon of campus life is one of the joys of Iyer's new-found freedom." 
Steve Mitchelmore, This Space

“Without shortcuts, [Iyer] tries to show not only what is lost in the modern world, but what remains—what his characters retain even through their despair, because of their despair, even if they don’t know it. One might call it hope... Wittgenstein Jr walks a line between cynicism and optimism, between the laughable and the serious...I, for my part, found it hilarious."
The Quietus

One of Publishers Weekly's Big Indie Books of Fall 2014

"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."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A droll love story... Existential angst is rarely this entertaining."
Kirkus Reviews

"With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, SpuriousDogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work."
The Millions, Most Anticipated Books for the second half of 2014

Praise for Lars Iyer’s trilogy:

“It’s wonderful. I’d recommend the book for its insults alone.”
Sam Jordison, The Guardian

“Uproarious.”
New York Times Book Review

“I’m still laughing, and it’s days later.”
Los Angeles Times

“Viciously funny.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A tiny marvel . . . [A] wonderfully monstrous creation.”
Steven Poole, The Guardian

“This novel has a seductive way of always doubling back on itself, scorching the earth but extracting its own strange brand of laughter from its commitment to despair.”
The Believer

Kirkus Reviews
2014-07-24
An enigmatic young philosophy lecturer infuriates, intrigues and ultimately beguiles his Cambridge University students in this droll love story about logic and learning from Iyer (Philosophy/Newcastle Univ.; Exodus, 2013, etc.). Wittgenstein Jr. is the name they give him. Their choice is inspired more by his dress and manner than his looks or accent, but like his namesake, he's obsessed with logic. He's also brilliant, and as he strives to instil philosophical thought in them, they struggle to keep up. "His classes are just a series of remarks, separated by silences. Ideas, in haiku-like sentences, full of delicate beauty and concision," notes the narrator, Peters, as their meanings whizz over his head. Peters is a final-year undergraduate, and he sets a spry tone as he chronicles his classmates' extracurricular high jinks, which are fueled by a fear of life after graduation and a stupefying quantity of booze and pharmaceuticals. (Preparing for a toga party, they down something called a Black Zombie, made of vodka, gin, tequila, Bacardi, pastis and Coke.) Meanwhile, Cambridge is depicted as a shell of its historical self, desiccated by bureaucracy and posh boys with no real intellectual zeal. Iyer's is also a Cambridge with markedly little room for women, though this detail goes curiously uncommented upon. As the product of a modest home in Northern England, Peters doesn't quite belong, and maybe that's why Wittgenstein eventually reaches out to him, drawing him closer than he ought. The lecturer's obsession with logic turns out to be rooted in a family tragedy that threatens to engulf him; in striving to save him, Peters learns a very adult lesson about what it means to love. Pieced together from terse vignettes and enlivened with a liberal scattering of exclamation points, the novel teeters between exaggerated gloom and moments of true tenderness. Existential angst is rarely this entertaining.
The Barnes & Noble Review

"The world is everything that is the case."

How many philosophy undergraduates have been lulled into a false sense of security by this seemingly straightforward proposition, which opens Ludwig Wittgenstein's landmark Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus? But by the time a student reaches the equally well known closing proposition, nearly seventy pages later — "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent" — nothing less than the limits of language, of the world itself, seem to have been reshaped.

The spirit of the Austrian philosopher pervades Wittgenstein Jr, the fourth novel by Lars Iyer, a lecturer in philosophy at University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and the author of a witty, Beckettian trilogy about two bickering intellectuals — Spurious, Exodus, and Dogma — that emerged from his blog, Spurious.

Wittgenstein Jr, warmer and more accessible than its predecessors, spans an academic year at Cambridge and concerns itself with a group of philosophy students and their professor, whom they have waggishly rechristened Wittgenstein:

Was it Ede's idea to call him Wittgenstein? Or Doyle's? . . . He dresses like Wittgenstein, for one thing — the jacket, the open- necked shirt, the watch strap protruding from his pocket. And he behaves a bit like Wittgenstein too: his intensity . . . his visible despair.
His real name is never revealed. To his class, he is only ever "Wittgenstein." Like his namesake, he is at Cambridge to do "fundamental work in philosophical logic." For the duration of the academic year, his students hang on his every word as he wrestles with his problems in classrooms, in walks about Cambridge (lovingly rendered), in bars. As Wittgenstein wrestles, so do his students: with romance, with excessive drinking, with the dreaded inevitability of their futures. Think Dead Philosophers Society.

In lesser hands, this might seem an unpromising foundation for a novel — the heart sinks whenever the dreary label "a novel of ideas" is trotted out, with its air of apology, of preemptive narrative defeat — but fortunately, Iyer's hands are deft, witty, and thoughtful. Wittgenstein Jr is a work that's both utterly accessible and engagingly complex.

The novel is narrated, in a fashion, by Peters, a student who functions as a dutiful Boswell, capturing Wittgenstein's inquiries. The other students are rendered entirely by dialogue, for which Iyer has a fine ear:
MULBERRY: Calm yourself, Peters.
ME: Look how moved [WJ] is. His eyes are closed. What's wrong with us, that we don't feel that way?
EDE: We're English. There's no cure for that.
Despite the lack of physical descriptions, Peters and his friends emerge vividly through voice. But it's Wittgenstein and his struggle that consumes these pages:
What if to think is to sink, not to rise?, Wittgenstein says. What If thinking is falling, failing, defeat? What if thought is the eclipse, not the sun? What if thought is mist, not clarity? What if thought is getting lost, not discovering? What if thought is waylessness, and not the way?
Every thought contains its own refutation, its own contradiction. It's easy to see the route to madness in endless questions. In Wittgenstein Jr, nothing is concluded. Perhaps nothing is meant to be concluded. Whereof one cannot speak, it seems, one can't stop talking.

Yet everyone valiantly grapples on. (What else is a philosopher to do?) Wittgenstein struggles with repercussions of his brother's suicide (the real Ludwig Wittgenstein lost three of his brothers to suicide), in an attempt to "construct a kind of 'logical mausoleum' for his brother":
He means to enter the region in which his brother lost his mind, and to come back out, Wittgenstein says.
Wittgenstein Jr is, among many things, a pointed satire of the academy (dons come off poorly, Cambridge and Oxford alike); an elegy for the death of serious thought; and a lovely treatment of the intensity of youth, the paradox of intimate friendships that dissolve with the end of a semester. Iyer is unsurprisingly at his best evoking these fierce college days, when everything feels so critical, and everything — studying, drinking, loving — is done to extremes.

The novel shifts uneasily into its final section, with a plot development that feels more orchestrated than organic. But at this point in the game, Iyer may be looking at exigencies beyond mere plot. "It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words," Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus; and the closing proposition has been taken to mean that the most important ideas — ethics, religion, God — lie beyond language. And this may be why Iyers's hero becomes consumed with after philosophy, when he hopes "[h]e'll look up at the sky. He'll laugh":
After philosophy, we will know things as they are, he says. We will be as we are.

After philosophy, everything we say will be true.
Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel Harry, Revised. His second novel, Memento Park, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Reviewer: Mark Sarvas

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781612193762
  • Publisher: Melville House Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/2/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 159,865
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

LARS IYER is the author of two books on Blanchot (Blanchot’s Communism: Art, Philosophy, Politics and Blanchot’s Vigilance: Phenomenology, Literature, Ethics) and the novels Spurious (which was 3:AM Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2011), Dogma, and Exodus. His literary manifesto, “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss,” appeared in Post Road and The White Review.
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