Spurious, by Lars Iyer

Purchased at Chapters.ca

A novel that shares its title with the author’s blog — you have to appreciate the implicit sense of humor. Not just that, Lars Iyer’s playfulness promises an encore — the back cover of this recently-issued debut announces that a “sequel” is coming, with Spurious to be followed in 2012 by Dogma.

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. And while Spurious certainly reflects his day-job and abilities there, I would have to say that even more it reflects an ability to turn a pleasantly critical (maybe sardonic would be a better description) eye on the author himself.

I have a fondness for novels that are centred on “spaces” where the author defines the surrounding parameters but leaves the space itself undescribed — the joy for the reader lies in filling in those voids himself. Examples on this blog would included the novellas of Jean Echenoz (reviews of four can be found here, so maybe it is more than simply a fondness) and Cynthia Ozick’s most recent work, Foreign Bodies.

Spurious is the dialectic pole of those books — the narrative is about the neutral, transitional spaces with the reader left to figure out just what are the circumstances around them. Consider this example from early in the book:

‘Something inside you always knew, didn’t it?’ W. says. ‘Didn’t your teachers say as much on your report card: Lars has a stutter, but it doesn’t seem to both him’? Buy why was I unbothered?, W. wonders. Did I imagine that my shame should end with the sign of my shame? I wasn’t ashamed of my shame, that’s the point, W. says. My shame didn’t prompt me to thought and reflection. It didn’t make me change my ways.

It’s all down to my non-Catholicism and non-Judaism, W. says. Only for a Jew and Catholic like himself (W.’s family are converts), is it possible to feel shame about shame.

There is a before and after to shame and they are what exists in reality; “shame” is merely the vehicle. But Iyer offers only hints about the before and afters; his interest is in the point of transition. Here is another example, which follows directly in the novel from the previous quote:

W. dreams of serious conversation. Not that it would have serious topics, you understand, he says — that it would be concerned, for example, with the great topics of the day. — ‘Speech itself would be serious’, he says with great vehemence. That’s what he found with the real thinkers he’s known. Everything they say is serious; they’re incapable of being unserious.

The quotes introduce the characters of the book. Both W. and Iyer are philosophy lecturers and both want to develop a “thought” that would give theme credence in the world of philosophy. Alas, they are spinning mental wheels on the way to that goal, caught in the mire of their trade — real achievement for them amounts to being asked to present lectures at conferences that feature better gin. One more quote to illustrate their focus on that “space” between wanting to create a real “thought” and what they actually do produce:

W. says I didn’t even read the chapters he sent to me. He could tell: my remarks were too general. I did read them, I tell him, well, nearly all of them. — ‘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 imaginery 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 imaginery examples, he says.

He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says. An imaginery nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.

Not surprisingly, W. and Iyer are isolated in their concerns and have only each other on whom to bounce their unformed ideas — that too has a geographical dialectic to it, with W. isolated in Plymouth and Iyer up in the northeast. W. finds Iyer both lazy and, frankly, stupid, but he is still dependent on him as a listening post.

The two have looked for leaders in the real world whom they could adopt and follow. They have even discovered three, but the results have always been the same:

But then the disaster happened, W. remembers. We told him, didn’t we? We told him he was our leader. We told him what we hoped he’d make us become. We told him of our hopes and fears … That’s where it all went wrong, we agree. We scared him off. After that, we resolved never to tell our leaders that they were our leaders, but we couldn’t help it.

The two do have a historical example for their aspirations — Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, biographer and literary executor (again, it is no surprise that the two consider Kafka their “spiritual leader”). While Brod himself never achieved a “thought”, he was essential to Kafka’s thoughts receiving attention since he ignored the author’s instructions to destroy all his works, publishing them instead.

The real world also intrudes in another thread of the novel, in a literally pervasive sense. Iyer’s northeast cottage is subject to the intrusion of a “damp” that is confounding all the experts — despite constant efforts to halt it, they are only successful in the moment and the damp eventually creeps back. It is destroying the entire structure.

Leo Benedictus might think The Afterparty is “a new kind of novel” that inaugurates a world of post-post-modernism. It isn’t — as a commentor here observed, reading it is the literary equivalent of scanning the tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter. Lars Iyer, on the other hand, has actually produced one.

Despite that judgment, I have to confess that my response to Spurious was more one of intrigued curiosity than being taken on a voyage into serious contemplation — it reminded me of philosophy department parties in my university student days when I listened to complex conversations that pretty much befuddled me, not sure whether it was the drink (affecting both speakers and listener) or the thoughts that produced the befuddlement.

When Spurious first arrived, the exceptional cover (which is an excellent visual version of the dilemma developed in the written book) immediately reminded me of Lee Rourke’s The Canal. Lo and behold, who should be blurbing this book on the back cover but Rourke (“a beguiling, philosophical exploration of humour and ideas [...] at once fresh, hilarious and touching”), a fair enough assessment and Rourke’s novel does have comparison points with this one. If the cover appeals to you as much as it did to me, you will find that Iyer does deliver on that promise. I may even give Spurious a reread before taking on Dogma.

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18 Responses to “Spurious, by Lars Iyer”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I own this one but haven’t got round to it yet. I got it as a promotion from the publisher and originally planned to bin it until I saw the Lee Rourke quote. I checked on twitter if he actually did rate it and he said yes, so it survives on my bookshelf.

    Reading this I’m glad it does. It doesn’t sound like it’ll be on my books of 2011 list (assuming I get to it this year, but I’ll try to) but it does sound like it’ll be an interesting read and that it could be amusing while thought provoking (never a bad combination).

    The cover is very good. Two bags of air caught in the wind…

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Dead on with the “bags of wind” observation. But like the bags, the two characters are colorful in their own way (we all know a version of W., someone who thinks one is both lazy and stupid but has some charm to him regardless). It is a quick read — only 188 pages and the chapters are quite short so there is a lot of white space in the book. And there is enough narrative stream to it that it moves along, rather that demand you pause to contemplate what you’ve just read.

  3. John Self Says:

    I checked on twitter if he actually did rate it

    Max! Did you think the quote was fake? It’s pretty unequivocal.

    Anyway I am reading this book at present, so in the time-honoured tradition of book bloggers, I have only skimmed Kevin’s review and will return to it after I’ve done my own.

    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      Well, they are published by the same house, and not every author is utterly scrupulous in reading books before writing blurbs for them…

      Of course I could be wrong in that. Perhaps Stephen King really does read all those novels he writes blurbs for. Somehow though I doubt it.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I can’t wait to see/read what you think. I suspect it will tweak your sense of humor even more than it did mine.

  5. John Self Says:

    Well I am certainly finding it very amusing, Kevin, though I am also finding it quite hard to keep track of – so many of the ‘chapters’ are similar, though that is clearly the point. Certainly the page margins of my copy are festooned with more pencil marks (my way of noting worthwhile passages as I read a book) than I can remember making for some time.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I had the same challenge with quotes — two are usually enough for me, this review has four and I left out a number that I wanted to include.

    I also experienced another “time-honored tradition of book bloggers” with this book: It was only as I was writing the review that I discovered I had a much higher opinion of the novel than I thought I had when I’d finished reading it.

  7. Guy Savage Says:

    Does the book go into academic life a great deal (sounds like it does from the better gin comment)?

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It does not go into academic life a lot, although if you know that world at all there is good sideplay (the conferences with better gin, as you note). Most of that side of it centres on how hopeless these two are at doing whatever it is they do — they start a lot of things, but rarely get to the middle of achieving anything, let alone the end. As the book goes on, that is part of its charm — as John Self notes, that does lead to some repetition, but I didn’t find it annoying.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      I have a weakness for novels set in academia, and I’ve also enjoyed several Echenoz.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Guy: I do too — my personal favorite is Javier Marias’ All Souls, based on a fellowship he had at the Oxford college. So many people thought that they were characters in the novel, he later wrote his “false novel”, Dark Back of Time, based on the reaction to All Souls. Many of Marias’ characters could have had great conversations with W. and Lars.

  9. Guy Savage Says:

    I haven’t heard of that one, so thanks for the tip. I’m sure you’ve read Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have and I loved it. Another favorite is Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men, although it is located in a research institute institute rather than a university. But it slops over into my journalism niche since one of the projects involves automated headline writing: “Strike Threat Probe” and “Lab Row Looms” are two examples.

  11. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve read a couple of Frayn’s but not that one, so I’ll look into it. Straight Man assumed cult status on several university campuses in N. America. It’s easy to see why.

    Some headlines are truly wince-worthy aren’t they?

  12. leroyhunter Says:

    This isn’t helping keep my wish list under control: Russo, another Frayn, 2 by Marias. Not to mention the title under review!

    On the books-in-academia theme, I just read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels, set in the eccentric Cambridge college of St Angelicus. Absolutely superb, if you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I have read the Fitzgerald and it is excellent. Another book for visitors to add to their list! Do read the Marias — they are on my favorites list, but I’ll admit the appeal may be to those of us who have obscure tastes.

  14. leroyhunter Says:

    Marias is someone I’m committed to reading more of anyway, I was just struggling with the choice of where to go next. This is the perfect pointer…I particularly like the conceit of fiction / reaction.

  15. Emily Baker Says:

    You guys might be interested to see a fascinating talk Lars Iyer gave on Spurious last week at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival – http://iai.tv/video/writing-the-end-times

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