Spurious by Lars Iyer. Melville House. 192pp. $14.95.
Friendship demands one expose oneself, or better, that one allow oneself to be exposed in the ecstasis that does not permit us to remain mired in tautology.
Lars Iyer, Blanchot’s Communism
Spurious cannot be reviewed like the books of so many dead authors, or even so many living ones. Lars Iyer is a blogger whose site is named Spurious, and now he has published a book named Spurious with a narrator named Lars. The book relates closely to the blog in content, in style, and in spirit. (It shares little in common with his two academic books on the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, however.) Some of the content from the book has appeared on the blog as daily entries, before and even after the book was published.
I am a blogger as well. We share some of the same tastes: Thomas Bernhard, Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Smog. Lars and I were both anonymous bloggers for a time. We did not want a public persona influencing our reader’s impressions of our work. Now we are not anonymous. I decided it was futile. Just ask Tao Lin. By signing up with Melville House, Tao Lin’s publisher, I gather Lars agrees.
Those who take Spurious the blog, and thus Spurious the book, as a pathetic intellectual burlesque are missing the great complexity offered by each. It is a subtle complexity, obscured by misdirection. But the richness in the book is available to those who let themselves be misdirected and then misdirect themselves. It takes some effort on the part of the reader to unsituate him or herself, however. Because this book does read like a sequence of blog posts on Spurious, and because it plays on the border between fiction and non-fiction like so many blogs, it demands a different sort of reading than one would give a novel that comes with nothing but a name attached. The chorus of Larses in the book, the blog, and Iyer’s interviews speak with greatly overlapping voices. But listen to this chorus of David’s and all will be made clear.
Stylistically, Iyer seems to be writing in a tradition that draws on an obsessive concern with the minutiae of language, not minimalism as much as pointillism, making every gesture apparent even as it is part of the gestalt. One thinks of some of the authors mentioned in Spurious: Beckett, Blanchot, Bernhard, as well as Rene Crevel. There is also the contemporary writer Gabriel Josipovici, who strongly shows Blanchot’s influence in his sparse, echoing fiction. Like Blanchot, he works with the most minimal of collateral indicators, trying to bring out through small repetition and variation the tremendous power of language. By contrast, Beckett was the most prodigious at this sort of language-work, but he generally operated at a higher level of abstraction and with a more absurdist sensibility. The others on this list work with recognizably human situations, albeit ones shorn of all but the most significant particulars.
Iyer brings a far lighter touch and broad humor to Blanchot and Josipovici’s approach. In so doing, he creates a more personable, human comedy in place of Beckett’s scatology and burlesque, resulting in a deadpan tone reminiscent of George Perec’s materialist 1960s comedy Things. In Spurious, the narrator and W. travel around Europe while discussing various angst-ridden intellectual matters. Life details are mostly elided in favor of existential generalizations. The narrator and W. like the sort of deeply serious art that another blogger friend of mine once described, not inaccurately, as “dopey”: Andrei Tarkovsky, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, Palace Music, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Creators who are searching, reaching, profound, bombastic. Rather masculine too: Lars and W. manage to go the whole book without discussing a single female. (Recommendation to Lars and W.: Simone Weil.)
I like some of those artists and writers too, though I have to wonder about anyone who seems to consume them so exclusively. To see why, let me give an example from Blanchot’s “Literature and the Right to Death”:
But at the same time, a death that results in being represents an absurd insanity, the curse of existence—which contains within itself both death and being and is neither being nor death. Death ends in being: this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands. Death ends in being: this is man’s laceration, the source of his unhappy fate, since by man death comes to being and by man meaning rests on nothingness.
This could read as either pompous nonsense or the deepest truth, depending on the day. One only truly gains from those mystics if one recognizes that, when imbibed in a less than melodramatically morose state, they must appear dopey. Relentless attraction to mystics who promise a Gnostic escape from the world is unhealthy, since the promise is always reneged upon.
Clearly, the narrator and W. have read too much Blanchot too frequently, for Blanchot, among others, only exists as a sort of superluminary, an unimpeachable authority to rank with the highest deities. They speak of Blanchot and their other heroes with a worshipful familiarity reminiscent of Pamela des Barres’ groupie memoir I’m with the Band. One wonders if this could be responsible for their plight, for, it is as though Vladimir and Estragon spent all of Waiting for Godot talking about what a great guy Godot was. It heightens the pomposity, and so W. and the narrator are always melodramatically morose. But frequently quite funny.
This is mostly a side issue, though. Like Monty Python’s invocations of Proust and Pasolini, the talk of these intellectual names and matters is not meant to require any knowledge of the source material beyond their being high-falutin’ names. (Most unlike, for example, Alan Bennett’s Bertrand Russell sketch in Beyond the Fringe, mostly constructed for fellow Oxbridgers.) The joke is the extent to which these names can be invoked in inappropriate, desultory, or trivializing ways. For example, one of my favorite bits:
W. reminds me of when I inspected his teaching. He drew diagrams for the students, two stick men. What was he explaining? Hegel and religion, he thinks.—”This is Lars,” he said, and drew a tiny cock on one of the stick men, “and this is me,” he said, and drew a huge cock on the other.
Cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Ivan Brunetti was a master at this sort of humor, as when he described a new comic strip as “A neo-Sophoclean exegesis on the nature of morality, with subtle layers of epistemological subtext and not infrequent structural allusions to the novels of J.-K. Huysmans.” The title: “Grandma Farts Blood.” The narrator and W.’s relentless solipsism sometimes negates some of the intensity that makes this sort of rage so piercing, but when it connects, it’s hilarious.
A few of the particulars are important, however. Specifically, one is that the narrator is Hindu-affiliated in some way, whereas W. was raised Catholic by Jewish converts. W. talks about the Messiah and the apocalypse a fair bit, while pointing out that the narrator is exempt from the general framework:
But there’s no messianism in me whatsoever, W. acknowledges. I’m far beyond that. Some process has completed itself in me, he says. Something, a whole history has been brought to an end.
Not that it stops W.’s abuse. But W. does tend to assign the concept of infinity to the narrator’s domain. W. orientalizes the narrator, trying to turn him into an Other. W. himself doesn’t seem to know much about Hinduism; at one point he errs quite badly by mixing up Hinduism and Buddhism, though the narrator doesn’t bother to correct him.
The aforementioned W. is the domineering presence of Spurious, the top to the narrator’s bottom. He abuses the narrator relentlessly, who seems to take it mostly in stride, reporting it without affect, perhaps enjoying it. W. is quite catholic in his attacks: the narrator may be a shameless ignoramus who’s bad at Greek, but he is also a fatso with a small penis. W.’s voice seems to bleed into the narrator’s, as his direct discourse becomes indirect discourse and then spills into unassigned narration. Assorted riffs—on joy, the Messiah, seriousness, and others—repeat themselves with varying levels of attribution.
But the narrator’s exoticism, as W. perceives it, seems to wreck the comedy routine. W. is trying to do a sort of Jewish shtick with the narrator, but the narrator is a flat, inadequate straight man. Gordon Lish tried for this sort of tragicomedy at times in Extravaganza and My Romance, telling jokes that weren’t funny. But here one of the duo isn’t being helpful. There are two types of straight men: suckers and pricks. W. wants the narrator to be a sucker but he’d even settle for him being a prick. Since the narrator steadfastly refuses to be either, W. protests increasingly, but all he hears about is the rising damp that comes to take on more importance for the narrator than his conversations with W.
Aside from that one point, though, the intellectual stuff remains a prop. The two of them are having conversations about the pain of living and getting along with one another and the rest of humanity, and the intellectual accoutrements just happen to be their particular milieu. It is best not to pay too much attention to them, though Lars has compiled a helpful glossary on the Melville House website explaining the references for the curious.
And that umbilicus that connects the book to the Internet is what makes the book so odd, because the abstract narrator and the mysterious “Lars Iyer” take on so many more layers in its light. I can see Lars promoting his book online, and I can see that Lars has been reprinting reviews of Spurious on his page. Lars seems an awful lot like the narrator. The back cover says that “Lars Iyer tells the story of a writer very like himself,” so that’s not just my imagination. I see that on Spurious, Lars has said of one review that “the critic hasn’t read the book closely, and is a bit of a show-off,” so I’d better watch out.
But is it Lars or the narrator who is commenting on the reviews? I don’t want to annoy either of them. One or the other may comment on this review, and then I’ll have to respond so that he won’t have the last word. Steve Mitchelmore, another literary blogger, calls Spurious a “profound philosophical rhapsody” in a blurb on the back. He recently called my blog a “pile of shit.” I want to title this review “PILE OF SHIT REVIEWS PROFOUND PHILOSOPHICAL RHAPSODY,” but I’m not sure Scott will agree. [Ed. note: as you can see, I agreed.]
My point is that a book like Spurious cannot be read, say, in the way that Lars and W. read Blanchot. Its characters are not Vladimir and Estragon. They are not Anne and Thomas the Obscure. They are anything but obscure. They are not even Krapp, Beckett’s most personable and seemingly autobiographical narrator, because Krapp was still an autonomous entity. I am sure that Lars knows this. I am sure that he also knows that the narrator and his friend W. may seem to be talking to each other in a vacuum, but are in fact talking to each other with an audience breathing down their neck. Perhaps not a large audience, but a far more present one than Beckett or Blanchot ever had. And so they know that no one (least of all me) is about to bend at the knee to them the way they do to Blanchot.
What about W.? He is so omnipresent both in the book and on the blog that he seems both larger than life and yet eerily real. And indeed, like the narrator, he has a real-life counterpart. The narrator drops enough particulars about W. that match a single, real person: William Large, also a philosophy professor, also the author of two books on Maurice Blanchot.
Now, this raises some peculiar issues. Lars has made it terribly easy to postulate Professor Large as W.’s counterpart. Whether or not he, in fact, is that counterpart, the trail that leads to his Internet doorstep is right there in the book, made trivial to follow. And the picture Lars has painted of W. is not flattering. He is a blowhard, a boor, and a bully. He seems far from happy, he repeats himself chronically, and he has a remarkable lack of self-awareness. He confuses Buddhism with Hinduism! He has a few moments of self-pity, particularly one in the dead middle of the book when W.’s wife expresses contempt for him and he goes on about how much better she is than him. “That’s why I abuse you—verbally, I mean,” he bleats to the narrator, “It’s a sign of love.” These moments are more pathetic than exculpatory.
W. is to William Large what the narrator is to Lars Iyer, at least according to Lars Iyer. We think that W.’s voice has been bleeding into the narrator’s, when really Lars’s voice has been bleeding into W.’s the whole time.
Who, then, is the bully here? On the one level, we have W. attacking the narrator for the two hundred pages of Spurious, while the narrator’s main faults seem to be restricted to being a glutton for punishment and having a problem with damp in his home. Yet Lars (at least one of the Larses) writes a book about W. recording the terrible things that he has said. We would not know this except for the trail pointing out of the book into real life. Perhaps these claims are not in fact true; perhaps Lars has written a slanderous roman-a-clef against an innocent man. There is cause for doubt. At one of the rare points where he speaks up, Lars makes a claim that he has “singled out” W. for “very special thanks” in his own book on Blanchot. But this is not true, for Lars gives merely “special thanks” to three people in Blanchot’s Communism, Large only one of them. Things do not look good for Lars.
M.A. Orthofer, another blogger, writes in his review of Spurious, “Why Lars puts up with the frequently condescending W. is not entirely clear.” I’m afraid it seems all too clear to me, once the metatextual legerdemain has been made decoded. The answer is the book itself. And is the book dedicated to its evident benefactor, William Large? Or even to W.? No, just to “Sinéad,” a figure privileged enough to go unmentioned in the text.
And so I wonder what poor W. (or Professor Large—the two are indistinct in my mind) must make of all of this, since if the fictional universe is to be extended to real life, poor W. is the butt of quite a big joke, much bigger than all the jokes that he makes at the narrator’s expense in Spurious. (Even if he is guilty of any of these sins, he has not even been given the chance to answer the accusations!) Lars, if he can be trusted, quoted “W.” in one of his posts on the Melville House blog:
It would seem that the book derives from conversations that Lars has recorded and put on his blog. Some of these conversations are fictional, W. protests: he claims not to recognise himself in everything Lars has written.
Shameless. I wrote to Professor Large, telling him I was reviewing Spurious, and did not receive a response. I can only hope that Professor Large will have his say in the already announced sequel to Spurious, Dogma, due in 2012. I hope Lars will give him the chance. In Friendship, Blanchot wrote:
How could one agree to speak of this friend? Neither in praise nor in the interest of some truth. The traits of his character, the forms of his existence, the episodes of his life, even in keeping with the search for which he felt himself responsible to the point of irresponsibility, belong to no one.
No one, it seems, except Lars. I think of Shem and Shaun, the two brothers of Finnegans Wake. Shem is the perverse, sickly Dionysian brother, filthy, genitally obsessed, dark and weak. Shaun is the bold, strong, morally upright brother, the knight in shining armor. But for all of Shem’s pathetic antics, Shaun is a moralistic bully who beats up on his brother and humiliates him, rendering him a pariah. Shaun then gets the girls and the glory. The trick of this book is that W. is Shem, not Shaun.
When asked in an interview why W. is so cruel to the narrator, Lars himself replied:
Cruelty is one of the few ways in which some of us can show affection in Britain, much to the confusion of many Americans I’ve known. It’s what makes us laugh, for the most part, even if we’re the butt of the joke.
I suspect Professor Large knows exactly what he means.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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