Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

While reading Lars Iyer’s recently released novel Spurious I had the curious feeling that he had somehow hacked my Gmail account and read the by-now-countless conversations I’ve had with my closest friends. My suspicion is, considering you lot keep coming around here, where posts untold were first given life in and left germs all over our respective chat archives, that if given the chance you’ll find Iyer cribbing from your conversations as well.

As with Beckett and Bernhard before him, nobody will be fooled by the apparent simplicity of Spurious. Two men, both reasonably intelligent academics, talk. And that is it, really. They talk on trains, on the phone, at the pub. There is talk of action, but no action as such. Well, no, that’s not quite true, is it? Talking is an action, too, after all. It may be more dull than, say, sex (one hopes), and more slow than a high-speed chase, but conversation, the simple being-with somebody else, is perhaps a more primal act than we, who are often bored with those with whom we have to spend time, might wish to believe. The main characters of Spurious, W. & Lars (the first-person narrator), are bound together in this primal act. They are, in fact, in talking, and I dare say only in talking, each other’s Messiah (149)—i.e., the (one) “to come” that “has come.” Fitting, perhaps, that the Messiah of a world such as ours should be so gloriously pitiful.

Throughout much of the novel, when he is not drunk, W. suffers from myriad sicknesses from which he only finds excuses not to work enough and never sufficient inspirational power to work only (i.e., to turn sickness into work itself), rendering him, he claims, very much unlike the true thinkers of old, for whom sickness and thought were indistinguishable. The only suffering his thought brings him is that borne of its (the suffering’s and the thought’s) inadequacy. For his part, Lars suffers from the debilitating promise of a sickness that is both present and not-yet present. While Lars is the foil of W.’s abusive accusations of stupidity, laziness, and cultural debasement, none of which Lars is quick to dispute, it is Lars’ sickness that provides physical form to the world in which they both live: that of the “the damp.” The walls of Lars’ kitchen, and increasingly (& eventually) his entire flat, are mysteriously wet—no expert can fathom how or why and no solution rendered. All they know is that it is coming from within the walls themselves, from between the brick exterior and plastered interior, and that it is growing; and that in growing, it is alive with spores and mold; and that in being alive, it promises only death. Money can be thrown at solving the problem, contractors consulted, etc., but is the damage already done by its having already lived? Indeed, this, too, is the question for W. & Lars, and it is one to which W., at least, believes he knows the answer:

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. (31)

The solution to life, its cessation, as it were, always comes too late. An individual’s participation in and perpetuation of the problem, indeed, the embodiment of the problem, is both the reason for and reason against taking one’s life. There are no adequate amends to be made, only apologies.

It’s all our fault, isn’t it? The whole thing is our problem in some way, as though we were behind everything. Yes, we’re responsible. We’re resigned to it: we’re not just part of the problem, we are the problem.

The road is blocked—our road, everyone’s road. We should just get out of the way. But how can we get out of the way of ourselves? We should throw ourselves off the cliffs, we agree. . . .

But what good would it do, our bodies prone and bloody on the rocks, seagulls pecking out our eyes? How could we apologise then? Because that’s what we ought to do—we should spend our whole lives saying nothing but sorry: sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, and to everyone we meet. Sorry for what we’re doing, and what we’re about to do, sorry for what we’ve done . . . Who would be there to say that for us if we jumped from the cliffs? (127)

Okay, so, don’t get me wrong. For all this admittedly morbid stuff, the book is very funny. I’m not sure I’d call it “dark humor,” though. For starters, at the end of the day, if humor isn’t dark is it really all that funny? After all, even the stupidest physical humor is premised on somebody falling down or some other kind of physically violent contortion. More importantly, though, in the case of Spurious the humor doesn’t shine in spite of the bleakness but precisely because of it. You will laugh, and unlike most dark humor where the intention is that you feel a little weird for having laughed, Iyer betrays no sense that you should feel the least bit weird doing so. I laughed, for example, at the constant abuse heaped on Lars not only because in it I saw how I treat my own friends, but also because the true, eventual target of W.’s scathing comments is himself.

It’s our fault, it’s all our fault, we should at least admit that, W says. It’s our fault and particularly mine. My fault, W. says, because my existence couldn’t help but contaminate his. And his fault, somewhat at least, because he continues to allow his existence to be contaminated by mine.

But what can we do about it? To whom should we apologise? Each other? I should certainly apologise to him, W. says. I owe him a lifetime of apologies. But doesn’t he owe me an apology, too? Doesn’t he, by his continual presence in my life, perpetuate the disaster?

He gives me license, W. says. He gives me encouragement—but why? In the end, perhaps I’m only a figment of his imagination, a kind of nightmare, he says. Can’t you see I’m burning?, I ask him in his dream. But in the end, he’s burning, W. says. He’s the one who set himself on fire. (32)

The above quote does a lot of very heavy lifting, I think, and provides strong evidence that Iyer is not merely some blogger-philosopher “playing” author. (I’ve not actually ever seen that accusation, but my cynicism is such that I expect others are far more silently cynical than even I.) Throughout Spurious, one has to pay close attention to the use of quotation marks. Sometimes W. is explicitly quoted, whereupon he will refer to himself as “I.” Other times, and far more commonly, Lars is citing (but not quoting) W., and will, as such, dispense with the punctuational pretense of quoting his friend. Rarely is there prolonged confusion as to who is the appropriate referent, but there was, for me anyway, cause for a certain hesitation and re-reading or glancing ahead to make sure I wasn’t misdirecting things. The result is that the mutual “contamination” between W. & Lars mentioned above is played out in our reading about it. Iyers’ professional research on the aesthetic philosophy of Maurice Blanchot may even allow us to venture one further: that because such a practice forces a heightened investment and attention on the part of the reader to the relatively mundane, “mechanical” aspects of writing—punctuation, grammar, etc.—the very process of our reading itself highlights a similar “contamination” between the reader & the novel. If that is so, apologies are in order all around (mea culpa): so goes the infinite conversation . . .

Fortunately, the contamination/conversation with Spurious is very much worth it. I recommend it without reservation.

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3 Responses to “Review of Lars Iyer’s Spurious

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’m going to provide my own “mercy comment.” I couldn’t work this into the post itself, but I wanted to highlight a wonderful quote by Dionys Mascolo that W. sends Lars. I’m completely ignorant of Mascolo and his work Le Communisme, bur he seems here to be idealistically (in the best sense of the word) describing something I think a good many of us might be on board with:

    One writes neither for the true proletarian, occupied elsewhere, and very well occupied, nor for the true bourgeois starved of goods, and who have not the ears. One writes for the disadjusted, neither proletarian nor bourgeois; that is to say, for one’s friends, and less for the friends one has than for the innumerable unknown people who have the same life as us, who roughly and crudely understand the same things, are able to accept or must refuse the same, and who are in the same state of powerlessness and official silence.

  2. david cl driedger Says:

    I suspect I speak for a few others in saying that comment silence is not lack of appreciation. You are one of the few lifelines to contemporary fiction that I am connected with online. Care to share a few online sources that discuss and review what you would consider good contemporary fiction?

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks, David. I wasn’t throwing a pity party or anything. I mostly wanted to include that quote.

    As to other good online sources for conversations about contemporary fiction, some of my favorites are:

    These should give you a pretty decent start if you’re interested in such things.


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