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.