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.