Tuesday, February 15, 2011
By Lars Iyer
Melville House Publishing
Lars Iyer’s debut novel, Spurious, is about two British intellectuals who travel around Europe, drinking and talking about such topics as literature, continental philosophy and how they have failed to achieve their dreams—but if this description sounds dreary, it’s only an illustration of the inability of a plot summary to convey the actual experience of reading a novel. Spurious is a hysterically funny comic novel comprised almost entirely of conversations between its two protagonists, W., a sharp-tongued scholar who constantly bemoans his inability to understand complicated maths, and Lars, a portly, middle-aged academic whose apartment is slowly succumbing to an untraceable damp and who wastes much of his time writing down all of the things that W. says and posting them to a blog (and, indeed, Spurious began its life in a blog of the same name written by Lars Iyer, who is, of course, a scholar and an expert on the work of French author and critic Maurice Blonchot).
For all of its intellectual references to Kafka, Blanchot, Kant and Schelling, the focus of the book is on the close-but-dysfunctional relationship of the two main characters (indeed the tone and form of Spurious isn’t entirely dissimilar to the film Withnail and I, and fans of that movie would almost certainly enjoy this novel). Most of their conversations begin with W. asking such questions of Lars as these: ‘When did you know you were a failure? When was it you knew you’d never have a single thought of your own—not one?’ and the joy is in watching their semi-serious attempts to answer these absurdities. W. and Lars belong to a long tradition of great comedic duos, from Laurel and Hardy to Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but there’s also a good deal of fun at the expense of scholarly life in the grand tradition of academic satire, such as in this passage about the publication of W.’s most recent book:
‘W.’s book has come out, he says. His editor went down to dine with W. and brought him twenty copies of his own book . . . His book is better than him, W. and I both agree. It’s greater. What’s it about?, I ask him of a particularly difficult section. He’s got no idea, he says.’
This book is full of wonderful, little comic scenes, most of them initiated by W.’s barbs at his friend Lars; indeed, this is suggested in the title Spurious, which technically refers to a false correlation or inference, but in this instance could similarly describe the book’s many verbal spurs—W. attacks and insults Lars in a way that’s only possible within the confines of a close relationship. And for all of its highbrow references, the novel is also written in a surprisingly plain and simple language and it’s not afraid to go lowbrow for a laugh (i.e. for a book that’s got a lot of references to philosophy, there are also quite a few dick jokes).
Spurious is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years, and I can also say that I enjoyed reading Spurious more than any novel I’ve read this year—it’s just bad, unclean, mean-spirited fun in the best possible way. But Spurious also manages to find real warmth and humanity in the discourse of two marginal misanthropes without ever swerving into easy sentimentality. Buy one copy for yourself and extra copies for those friends you have who always end up talking about intellectual topics at parties—trust me, they need to read this book, if only to remember that the overexamined life is also not worth living.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 9:43 AM