Lars Iyer, Spurious (Melville House, New York: 2011) paperback, 188 pages.
I bought and read this book in response to glowing reviews by people I respect like John Self (on his Asylum book blog) and Sam Jordison at the Guardian (‘a brilliant, engaging read’). Although I’m mostly in accord with their positive views, I finished it with decreasing enthusiasm and, by the end, a fair amount of…well, boredom.
It’s certainly an engaging, curious and highly individual work. It doesn’t conform to most of the conventions of a novel: there’s little plot to speak of – the spread and growth of damp and spores in Lars’ flat, perhaps, and occasional gin-fuelled dérives with his pal W., perhaps (there are several in jokes about the Situationists; many more – too many – about other philosophical, literary figures). The largest part of the book consists of raucous dialogues between the character called Lars, who like his namesake the author lives and teaches in the NE of England (Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle), and his ‘frenemy’, the acerbic W. – we never learn his full name. W. lives in Plymouth where he seems also to have a fitfully rewarding academic career. These dialogues are almost entirely narrated as reported speech by the impassive Lars:
I am something to explain, W. says. He has to account for me to everyone. Why is that? I don’t feel I have to account for myself, W. says, that’s what it is. I’ve no real sense of shame. It must be something to do with my Hinduism, W. muses.
This appears on the first page, and typifies the oblique style and muted, absurdist tone. Most of what W. says to Lars, as reported by Lars, anyway – he’s not the most reliable of narrators – is cruelly insulting. He frequently singles out Lars’ stupidity, obesity and all-round uselessness; this is apparent from page 1, just a few lines on from my previous quotation:
‘You’re an ancient people, but an innocent one, unburdened by shame’, W. says. On the other hand, it could simply be due to my stupidity. I’m freer than him, W. acknowledges, but more stupid. It’s an innocent kind of stupidity, but it’s stupidity nonetheless.
This kind of love-hate relationship with its banter, this deadpan, relentless insulting (which is usually placidly accepted by Lars) has been likened by most critics to the clownish antics of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.
Iyer himself, in an article in the Guardian in 2012, acknowledged his debt to Nietzsche, quoting his statement: ‘In your friend you should have your best enemy’. Such a friend, Iyer continues, should be one who ‘badgers, bothers, enrages, and insults you’, and he claims to detest the blandly spurious ‘kidult’ friendship promoted on platforms such as Facebook. And that probably explains this book’s title.
There are nine other literary pairs of ‘frenemies’ that Iyer identifies in that article (in addition to Vladimir and Estragon); all are clear influences on Spurious – here are some of them:
Don Quixote and his ‘comic foil’ Sancho Panza.
In the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser the pianist prodigy Glenn Gould sends his less gifted fellow music student Bertheimer into a downward spiral of misery ending in suicide after Gould labels him a ‘loser’, and plays with inimitable virtuoso skill.
Thomas Mann’s Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain, ‘the former embodying the positive, hopeful ideal of the Enlightenment, and the latter, the more chaotic, order-threatening aspects of fascism, anarchism and communism. The two men debate furiously, and end up fighting an improbable duel, foreshadowing the coming clash of ideologies that would tear the continent apart.’
The cutting, nihilistic sharpness of W.’s invective is mildly amusing for a while: ‘You always have administration to fall back on’, W. says. ‘You never really experience your failure’. The back-handed compliment is compounded in the next sentence: ‘With neither a fear of unemployment nor a fearful skill as an administrator, W. is alone with his failure, he says. It’s terrible – there’s no alibi, he can’t blame it on anyone’. After this uncharacteristic, Kafka-esque flash of self-criticism W. returns to his usual theme: ‘You’re like the dog that licks the hand of its master. You’ll be licking their hand even as they beat you, and making little whiny noises. You’re good at that, aren’t you – making whiny noises?’
Nearly 200 pages of such pessimistic, one-sided badinage has limited appeal for me:
We were disgusted with ourselves. We were mired in self-disgust, our whole circle. We hung our heads. If we could have hung ourselves at that moment, we would have done so.
Yes, it’s inventive, clever, thought-provoking and idiosyncratic. Look at the whimsically studied development there from ‘hung our heads’ to ‘hung ourselves’, and the other patterned repetitions here and in much of the dialogue, presented (as in the quotation above) in staccato bursts of short sentences or paratactic, loosely linked sentences of greater lengthy. But I think it’s just too damn up itself to be fully successful in literary terms. It’s an intelligent curiosity, well worth reading, but ultimately sounds too few notes too frequently. Its origins as a blog are also apparent: it’s got an episodic, non-linear structure, and lapses too often into repetition.
The most interesting aspect of the text for me was the more profound, less quirky forays into philosophical debate, presented with the bleak wit of Lars and W.’s literary hero, Kafka, and their cinematic hero, the Hungarian Bela Tarr:
Of course, I should take my life immediately, that would be the honourable thing, W. says. I should climb the footstool to the noose…But it would already be too late, that’s the problem, W. says. The sin has already been committed. The sin against existence, against the whole order of existing things.
Iyer is to be congratulated for producing such a daring attempt at a shaggy-dog story based on the principle of turning apocalyptic-messianic pseudo-philosophical musings by a pair of smug, self-styled idiots into Nietzschean, angst-ridden comedy:
We know we’re failures, we know we’ll never achieve anything, but we’re still joyful.
Iyer’s competitive chums are capable of beautiful lyric episodes:
We’re only signs or syndromes of some great collapse, and our deaths will be no more significant than those of summer flies in empty rooms.
There are some genuinely funny (but weird, absurd) passages, like this one, where W. has been viciously berating Lars for not reading the chapters he’d sent him for comment:
‘You didn’t read chapter five’, says W., ‘with the dog’. He was very proud of his pages on his dog, even though he doesn’t own a dog. ‘You should always include a dog in your books’, says W. It’s a bit like his imaginary children in his previous book, W. says. – ‘Do you remember the passages on children?’ Even W. wept. He weeps now to think of them. He’s very moved by his own imaginary examples, he says.
He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says. An imaginary nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.
It’s for sentences like these that I think Spurious is worth a look; but be prepared for some longueurs and donnish, highbrow namedropping among the comical repetitions.