Spurious, by Lars Iyer
How fitting that a book called Spurious, that started life as a blog, should be a frontrunner for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. This not being the Booker, Spurious is neither a state-of-the-age doorstopper, a fictional resurrection of a misunderstood historical personage, nor a parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey. It is instead a series of blogpost-sized snippets following the repetitive interactions of a tragi-comic double-act – the down-at-heel narrator Lars, and his hilariously harsh friend W.
Lars and W. are relatively undistinguished philosophy tutors at English universities, and both are united by a feeling of utter inadequacy, irrelevance, stupidity and, well, spuriousness in the face of their intellectual heroes. They meet, talk, drink, despair and console, but mostly W. just mercilessly – and hilariously – abuses Lars. In one particularly funny passage, W. compares their friendship with that of Blanchot and Levinas – except whereas the French philosophers exchanged correspondence of depth, significance and high seriousness, W. and Lars draw each other pictures of cocks on the internet. Their problem, W. notes, is that neither of them is a Kafka – they are both Brods.
Spurious is an un-English book in several ways – partly because of its complete lack of interest in the mode of mainstream, lyrical realist fiction that is so dominant in this country, but also due to its subject matter and tone. W. and Lars’s heroes stem from the tradition of continental modernism – from Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot and Beckett to Bela Tarr – and they are infused with a very European anxiety. The book also owes a great deal to Thomas Bernhard, who is unmentioned but whose presence is unmistakable throughout.
Following the distancing technique employed by Bernhard in novels such as The Loser and Old Masters, the entire narrative is reported to us by a narrator (Lars), who is the passive figure in most of the interactions. Thus the book consists for the most part of the thoughts and opinions of W., though the only narrative access we have to him is second hand. This introduces an aspect of what James Wood calls ‘double unreliability’ – we know that W. has been rewritten by Lars, but we don’t know to what extent. As in Bernhard, the characters’ voices are subsumed in the act of narration, reinforcing the insurmountable distance between art and life, and the fundamental impossibility of writing.
Indeed it is this sense of distance and impossibility that is perhaps the central current running through Spurious. Lars and W. are anachronistic figures chasing a seriousness and authenticity of intellectual experience that seems to be no longer attainable. Even their despair is ironic, clichéd and absurd – the very possibility of authentic thought seems to have withered and died, suffocated by the intellectual giants in relation to whom their failure is assured. As with Bernhard and Beckett, Spurious is pulled along by gallows humour, but the bleakness and despair underpinning it is real too.
Spurious will probably remain a cult book that appeals primarily to those with the sort of intellectual interests that lead them to empathise with Lars and W. That said, for all its acknowledged spuriousness and self-mockery, it is a book that responds to serious questions in a way that is honest, thoughtful and deceptively profound. It is, in the best possible sense, the opposite of the sort of book that normally wins the Booker Prize. That it will have to make do with that award’s tongue-in-cheek inversion is therefore entirely appropriate.