Two warnings; two ameliorations. Warnings: the following reading is iconoclastic, and I have yet to read either the precursor (Spurious) or the sequel (Exodus). Ameliorations: even should the author publicly decry this review as blasphemous, the reading still works effectively, and as with the trilogies of Davies and Nichols, this middle novel stands alone quite well. Dogma opens with a lecture tour from Britain to southern United States. Iyer seems to take the South as emblematic of the schlock and decay of our present day, just as he seems to take the character Lars as emblematic of today’s lazy hedonism. W, the alter ego (in my reading) of Lars, is a hard-nosed Jewish academic forever berating Lars for his laziness, his hedonism: “In the end I excel at only three things, W says: smut, chimp noises, and made-up German.” The “I” in the former quotes is Lars. Or is it? Is not rather W berating himself in fine Puritanical fashion for not working hard enough, for being distracted by the material matters of life? After all, who ever heard of a duo of lecturers traveling together? Academics could never get their act, much less acts, so organized beyond petty backbiting. And this curious manner of narration begs for misinterpretation. The American lecture tour ends quickly enough at Pigeon Forge, Dolly Parton’s hometown amusement park. The remainder of the novel occurs in Great Britain and Europe. A pre-apocalyptic Europe, I should note, for that historical conjecture of civilization’s imminent demise sets the dark—though comic—tone for the entire novel. When Lars tries to book a trip to St. John’s Patmos, he winds up instead at Piraeus and then Paros, evidently a Greek resort island. No revelations, only decadence are forthcoming. “Our eternal puppet show, says W.” This novel’s tenor is intense, compelling. Don’t look for plot, but do look for a quest—perhaps unfulfilled for sure, but human all the same, a “mayfly of thought.” And thus, my reading of this supposed dialogue as an interior struggle, W on one side, Lars on the other, listening for “Pythagorean spheres,” hearing only “the amazing force of idiocy, a solar wind sweeping through empty space.” And what of Sal? Ah Sal, with her impeccable musical taste. Well, why not go further, since I’ve trod out on a limb: Sal is the eternal feminine, Lady Sophia, Wisdom—exactly what W and Lars will never attain.
Bonus addendum: If you bought into the above interpretation, you can also expand it to read the entire novel as symbolic of what W refers to as the conflict between capitalism (materialism) and religion (spirituality). That is, what is evidently seen as the main conflict of modernity and perhaps the source of its malaise.