I hope people get that this is a comic novel from the non-risque double entendre title. I came to this novel in need of a laugh and that’s exactly what I got, although there are a few barbs along the way. I mean, who knew the philosophy of Nietzsche could be so funny? Ok, that’s a stretch, Nietzsche and the Burbs is not so much about the philosophy of Nietzsche as it is about a bunch of suburban teenagers and their existential angst.
One of the ‘gang’ of friends, a new boy to the school, acquires the nickname Nietzsche. His public school background gives him a certain status among his small band of comrades. They adopt him as one of their own and consequently examine his behaviour and his pronouncements for deeper meaning. Our teenage protagonists grapple with the philosopher’s work and how it relates to their suburban lives. Their information is acquired from the search engine on their smart phones.
Of course, they don’t exactly identify as a group, they see themselves more as a non-group because they have rejected the conformity of most of their class mates and recognisable groupings. They don’t see their disassociation as another form of conformity. Their teenage version of nihilism means they accept that they are staring into the abyss, suburban life is an abyss. They assume their otherness is rebellious and independent. Honestly, in making some serious points about growing up in the modern world this novel proves that observing teenagers mixing their interpretations of Nietzscheism with suburban living is good for laughs. They are more hung up on the word nihilism rather than any thing Nietzsche said about The Will to Power.
Iyer gets teenagers, their preoccupations, their doom-laden outlook and their day to day travails, the sulky teenager looking on the gloomy side of life. This book is witty but there’s a recognition that teenagers do have it tough. This novel works well because it empathises with the experience of youth, let’s face it we’ve all been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, although most people seem to forget that. Crucially Iyer has us laughing, empathising with the teenagers not laughing at them, their angst, their prejudices, preconceptions, vulnerabilities and gullibility, (remember we’ve all been there). Any normal childhood is kind of tribal, even not wanting to be part of a tribe is tribal. Our guys are together because they don’t want to conform, it’s a paradox.
A couple of months out from the exams a new boy arrives at school. He’s public school, it’s in his bearing, his composure and assurance. Why would anyone leave public school for ‘dreary’ suburbia? Expelled? Parents bankrupt? Paula thinks he has charisma, the narrator, Chandra, thinks it’s because he doesn’t care that he has charisma. Merv just want to know what charisma is. Chandra thinks the new boy could be one of them.
Economics – The ‘Old Mole’ is banging on, talk of the economy leads to a discussion on corporate power, fascism, hyperinflation, trade wars, separating the banks, and cryptocurrencies. The new boy puts his hand up, let it all come down, he says, the economy devalues everything that matters. So what does matter? Life.
“Wow!” says Art, sotto voce.
So the new boy’s an apocalypticist. Just like us. [Chandra]
‘Boredom . . . Bitch Tits . . . Schlong Boy . . . Hand Job and the gang . . . And The Sirens, of course, sitting together, exotic, transferred from private school at the beginning of the sixth form.’
Chandra: The common room, lowest-common-denominator room, the soul-death room. The beasts, and their chew-toy, bombshell. The trendies – seen it all before, the drudges – to lazy to fear (the survivors). ‘All we have in common is that we have nothing in common with anyone else.’
‘We have our band, Art says.
The band is dead, Paula says.’
They speculate on the new boy, was it arson? No. He left Trafalgar college when he lost his scholarship, (arson is sexier), his dad died, he was a teacher, they were kicked out of their school house. Paula decided he looks like Nietzsche, if you ignore the moustache, (try ignoring the moustache!).
Well being class – Mr Merriweather, the self styled teen-whisperer tells them about the Bhutan experiment, Buddhism, wholeness and happiness. The class mocks.
Chandra: Then there’s the burbs, not the band, the ‘housing solutions’. Soul murdering accommodation, blandness to obliterate resistance. Teenage lives are hard. God is dead. Life is without objective, meaning, purpose or intrinsic value. God is a construct to deal with meaningless life. The new Nietzsche offers: ‘life cannot be fake’. Merv offers:
“Everyone’s f__king everyone and no one is f__king us.”
Ay, there’s the rub. Or not the rub as it were, they aren’t getting any. The world of the teenager seems unfathomable to most oldies, a strange phenomenon, have we somehow lost the connection? The past and youths are another country.
Do teenagers weigh things differently, does Branson has the same ‘status’ as Nietzsche, debate on God mean as much as your favourite band? The teenage way of processing learning, absorbing isn’t as filtered or subject to rules as adults. Social media has changed the way things are seen, Kim Kardashian has millions of followers it gives her import.
This is a wonderfully clever observational comedy, lively, funny, deadpan, with more than a little insight into teenagers, their banter, backchat, opinions, arguments, likes and dislikes, moods and education, precocity and challenging thought, the fascination with death, optimism and sadness, the search for meaning, or lack there of, of life.
This is not about Nietzsche, certainly not an exploration of Nietzscheism in any depth, that’s not a failing, teenage angst, despair, isn’t a breeding ground for philosophical debate, it’s more about the way they absorb basic pointers into their lives. It’s not even about the character Nietzsche, really he’s a bog standard nihilistic teenager. Chandra and the others assume he is their finest mind. When he gets a job in the local supermarket Chandra laments the lot of the finest mind among them. Free will, the existence of God, the end of history, is nothingness actually something? Discuss.
This is not negative about the suburbs, the breeding ground for the future, if you believe in youth, I think Iyer does. What I take away from this novel more than anything is the crushing way we seek to make young people conform.
This novel is readable, entertaining and open to a wide audience.
Paul Burke 4/4*
Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer
9781612198125 Melville House Paperback January 2020