Nietzsche and the Burbs is Iyer’s most novelistic novel so far. It has delineated characters and a slowly building plot. But this in some way runs contrary to Iyer’s natural gifts. His comic style, bristling with italics and based on mirrored phrases and repetition, can itself become repetitive in a way that isn’t rewarding: ‘How can this be? The best mind of our generation, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs? The great philosopher of our time, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs?’
Iyer’s prose is immersive, dominated by dialogue, and his plot is recursively repetitious (in the way that schooldays and revision are). The almost formless story is given order by precise time markers: the novel is broken down into weeks, each broken into days. Individual passages, read in isolation – with the friends’ meandering yet pugnacious ruminations, interspersed with bursts of sweary rudeness – form sharp, witty vignettes of bright teenagers grasping for meaning
Where the novel truly shines is in its analysis of suburbia, the other half of the title. It is not merely a re-run of the notorious lines by John Betjeman (“Come, merry bombs and fall on Slough / It isn’t fit for humans now”), nor is it an elegiac psychogeography in the vein of Iain Sinclair or Will Self. It is keenly observed, describing the mediocre modernity of new build estates. At the same time there is a form of tenderness in suburbia. “Nietzsche” says that “Everyone used to believe in betterment” and that “there’s only the sheer positivity of the suburbs in their infinite sprawl”. It is worth noting that one subplot involves cancer, and like cancer, the suburbs grow and are immortal. The teenagers rage at the homogeneity of the suburbs, and yet the novel suggests a world without difference, of equality, might also be found in the burbs. They yearn for some kind of apocalypse.
Iyer’s co-protagonists don’t entirely convince as a depiction of contemporary youth: when Chandra declares that “No one will ever have been more bored than we are. More purely bored”, he sounds more like a 1970s punk-rocker than a 21st-century digital native. Their cud-chewing — on the redemptive power of art, the yearning to transcend the banality of modern existence, and so on — grows wearisome. But Iyer does a good line in pithy dialogue, and the landscape of late adolescence is evocatively rendered, encompassing everything from the “Hieronymus Bosch grotesquerie of the PE changing rooms” to the thrill of anticipation on nights out: “Why not secede, sit life out, bury ourselves in our bedrooms? Because of possibility. Because of what might happen.”
Iyer is eager to exploit the rich opportunities for comic juxtaposition. When it is discovered that the Beckett archives are held in nearby Reading, it’s taken as proof positive that there isn’t a God: Reading, the gang decide, is the “opposite of Paris”, antimatter to Endgame’s matter. When Nietzsche – the new kid is never known by any other name – gets a part-time job at the local Asda, Chandra wonders how the best mind of his generation has ended up scooping peanut satay into tubs. And when the gang start a band that shares its name with the novel’s title, someone asks if they will really have performed the gig if no one is present to hear it.