‘Not only learned and funny, but kind of scary, too’ – Spurious by Lars Iyer
Spurious is Lars Iyer’s debut novel, but not his first book – he’s published a couple of philosophy texts before – and it shows. This is a guy who knows his intellectual history; the novel is laden with references to Kafka, Tarkovsky, messianism, Bela Tarr, Rosenzweig, mathematical theory and more. Iyer’s narrator, Lars (just to get you thinking) and his ‘slightly more successful friend’, W, both writers and academics, wander back and forth across Europe and between their respective homes in Newcastle and Plymouth, railing against their professional and personal inadequacies, failures and fears. Or, at least, W. does; Lars is his sounding-board, his whippping-boy, his alter-ego – the Brod to his Kafka, as he keeps saying, before worrying that he’s also Brod, and there’s no Kafka at all. Lars, on the other hand, is more concerned with the toxic fungus that’s taking over his damp-riddled flat. And they’re both pretty worried about where the next drink is coming from.
So it’s a novel of ideas; a meandering and repetitive exploration of ennui, angst and booze as the two of them talk and exchange notes and make and break all manner of self-improvement plans. And, okay, it sounds bleak and overly intellectual and maybe a little stifling. And in some ways, it is – this isn’t one for somebody looking for a plot in their books. But Iyer manages to intersperse all the philosophical debates with brilliant flashes of humour – there’s a discussion about man-bags that had me laughing out loud – and because W. is constantly retracing the same debates, digging through his own thought-processes and insulting Lars along the way, the Godot-esque sameness of his diatribes becomes funnier as it goes along. And Spinoza shares page-space with Peter Andre; our heroes worry about their flowery shirts when everybody else is wearing black; they compare illnesses and get stressed about how few foreign languages they can speak – being able to read them doesn’t, apparently, count. If you’re getting bogged down by the heavier discussions, you can be sure the author won’t allow it to become too serious; W. will puncture the intellectual bubble by launching into a rant about the damning size of his friend’s belly. The chapters are very short, too, so despite the lack of any actual action, the book moves along quickly. The book started life as a blog, and many of the chapters were posted there, both before and after the book’s publication date, so that gives a sense of the digestible size of each entry/section (and gives you a chance to try before you buy).
W. is sure that we’ve reached the End Times, that he and Lars are witnessing the beginning of the apocalypse. He seems to mainly base this conclusion on Jewish and mathematical texts he has trouble decoding, and on his own lack of intellectual prowess, so it’s hard to take him seriously – but Iyer shores it up with the parallel story of Lars’ encroaching damp and mould. ‘I’m stranded in space between the armies of damp’, he tells W. And as W.’s sense of foreboding increases, so the mould advances, until Lars says, ‘I think it’s speaking through me, a word of damp from within, in my frosty, spore-filled breath and in every line I write.’ Although Lars is our narrator, the story he tells is W.’s in reported dialogue, and Lars himself is a mostly silent witness as well as the victim of his friend’s savage portrait of him – yet, if Lars is right, and the alien, poisonous damp is speaking through him, perhaps we’re not really hearing W. at all, but an actual apocalyptic voice as the fungus takes over… So Spurious is not only learned and funny, but kind of scary, too. The descriptions of the damp and its takeover of Lars’ home reminded me of Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, with its poetic and repulsive descriptions of decay and entropy.
But maybe even more than the apocalypse or the impossibility of serious thought, Spurious is about friendship; W.’s complaints and critiques and insults mask a deep love for his friend Lars, a love that binds them together and lets them rise above the pretty awful circumstances of their lives (or, their lives as W. sees them – he’s got a nice house and a decent wife and at least two books published, after all). At the beginning we hear that Lars is a terrible influence on W., that he speaks ‘unending bilge’; at the end we see that their friendship is the foundation of everything: ‘But perhaps the plain is the friendship between us on which we are both lost, he says.’ So maybe not all is lost, despite the damp, despite their failures, despite their drunkenness and lack of ideas – they’ve still got each other, and they’ll still carry on.
Any Cop?: It’s definitely in the avant-garde corner of the ring, so I’d steer clear if you’re in the market for a rom-com or a nicely-plotted crime story. But it’s got such a great balance of the serious and thought-provoking (Kafka pops up everywhere), the bodily grotesque (digestive complaints, anyone?), and the bitingly funny references to contemporary culture, that I bet more of you will fall for it than you’d think.
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- April 9, 2011 / 5:39 am