The Short Version: Cambridge University. A class of boys taking philosophy under the strange tutelage of a man they dub Wittgenstein. Over the course of the term, they will question so many things about philosophy and life.
The Review: I am a fan of philosophy. A book-length novel that essentially just discourses on life, reason, philosophy… it’s not for everyone, not for all times, but sometimes (for me), it’s exactly what you need. Enter Wittgenstein Jr.. Now, I didn’t study any Wittgenstein in my few philosophy courses at school – his was a philosophy that worked in logic, in mathematics, in the very basis of philosophy itself. My sister, who took a philosophy degree in England, would undoubtedly know more about the man’s theories than I – I leave it to her to decide whether or not that makes for better enjoyment of the book, should she read it. But I don’t think one needs to know Wittgenstein, mostly because the character who is dubbed Wittgenstein in this novel (curiously, we never learn his real name) is possessed of his own philosophy, a philosophy that becomes the only Wittgenstein we need in this book.
And there is a whole lot of him. Of it; his philosophy. There are numerous walks, even more numerous classes, still more numerous considerations of philosophy. Not of any particular one, but of philosophy itself. Of the reasons why we must wrangle with the nature of humanity, of the world, of the universe. Sure, there are particulars that are brought up – but all in the pursuit of the larger questions. My own existentialist leanings served me well when I began to engage with parts of the book: for example, Wittgenstein holds forth on the absurdity of suicide and how the act is the most violent of rebellions – and I thought of Camus, discussing how the only serious philosophical problem is suicide. These thoughts are on my mind of late, after the untimely passing of a young man close to many in the New York theater community and, as all good philosophy should do, I was pausing in my reading to grapple with the thoughts on my own. What an impressive achievement in any text, let alone a piece of fiction.
Still, it’s not all philosophical mumbo and/or jumbo. There’s definitely a whole lot of that… but there’s also some good clean collegiate fun. The boys drink, do drugs, shack up (with girls, boys, each other) – a recurring bit is that Guthrie recreates the life and death of famous philosophers as a sort of party trick. These reenactments are well-received and just the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a party like this, along with the guy snorting coke next to you and the girl puking in the bushes. There are armchair bits of philosophy, exactly the sort you’d expect from kids at 20, 21 – the questions of life, the universe, and everything because you just dont know. Life awaits, you’re told, but you have no idea what the hell that means. If anything, it probably means you’re about to get screwed (Iyer gets in a good dig about this towards the end, in a chapter where Peters and Ede make fun of the career center brochures about opportunities after college). But it felt organic, it felt real. I understood these boys because I once was one of them. Hell, I still am in some ways: any given night with friends at a pub, you can wager I’ll get us started on something at least modestly weighty. But philosophy is a life’s work – you can’t expect to learn it at school and then be done.
And this is where the novel begins to tip into some troublesome territory. Wittgenstein as a character, we realize, is a bit ridiculous. Not just ridiculous, he’s a little… unreal. His frenzy, his paranoia, his peculiar method of teaching – it just rings a little… well, a little fictional, I suppose. This would all be fine and dandy if the book ended at the end of section 3. However, it does not: there is a section 4 and this is where things get weird. I’m also, for those interested in reading the book, about to get into some SPOILER talk.
So Peters (our main character, the often-just-recording-it-all narrator) ends up falling in love with Wittgenstein. And vice versa. They briefly become lovers at the end of term, after everyone has gone home, and it is a fiery and torrid little affair. And, at this moment, the book dropped in my estimation in the same way a plane sometimes drops suddenly. It is an unpleasant thing to experience. I find myself wondering why Iyer added this more-personal dash of development to these characters, to this story. The boys (and Wittgenstein) were all fully formed enough to be definable, albeit with simple terms (this one wears the swear-word t-shirts, the twins are crazy jacked sports dudes, etc) but their characterization was not the point. The point was, at least as far as I could tell, the philosophy. The decision to engage, in short-novel length and form, with major questions of existence and being, seen through the eyes of both students and a wacky Cambridge prof. Suddenly the book became a little other than that, but this other undercut everything that had come before. Perhaps it is important to see Wittgenstein crumple, fail, flee – but I don’t think so. Perhaps this was a lesson that Peters needed to learn – but I don’t think so. Their romance feels so out of place that it almost could’ve been dropped in from a different novel, a novel taking place at Cambridge at the same time with the same characters even, just written by someone else and following a different plot. As a result, the novel became a somewhat predictable disappointment at the end.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I am, perhaps, giving the book slightly higher marks than it deserves – but that is because I cannot help but like the idea of putting serious philosophical questions out there in such a way as makes the reader engage. I engaged with these ideas in this book and enjoyed doing so. And I enjoyed the depiction of these young men at such an august institution, one that is and forever will be bigger than any of them, still fighting to understand the ridiculous things about the world even as they are told that they probably won’t. Or can’t. Or shouldn’t. But we ridiculous young men (and the commensurate young women) won’t ever stop coming. It’s just a shame that Iyer’s novel didn’t stop a little short of where it does. Philosophy should be pure, not sullied by unexpected romance or “plot” – but, then, this is a novel, not a philosophy text.(This review originally ran over at TNBBC – go give them some love!)