Lars Iyer’s Spurious
was recommended to me by art critic, omnivorous reader, and friend Saelan Twerdy, who can be found on the internet at Tower of Sleep
. The recommendation was so enthusiastic that I would have felt rude ignoring it for long, so I took a break from the recently published compilation of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels to read Iyer’s brief book. It’s very funny, and quite good. But that’s not what I want to write about. Midway through my reading, I encountered this Iyer quotation on Saelan’s tumblr:
I am certainly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s famous essays calling for a new novel: for a novel to reject anthropomorphism in its presentation of the world; for a novel to deny the primacy of character; for a novel to present things that Robbe-Grillet describes as ‘hard’, as ‘unalterably, eternally present’, as ‘mocking the “meaning” assigned to them’; for a novel to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’, as Sarraute would have it; a novel to register what she calls the ‘vast, empty stupefaction’ at the world that is appropriate in the wake of the concentration camps. How do W. and Lars spend most of their time but in a state of ‘vast, empty stupefaction’? What else are the damp in Spurious and the rats in Dogma but unalterable and eternally present, mocking any meaning that might be assigned to them? The narrative technique of Spurious and Dogma is intended as a rejection of older forms of character-novel. I want nothing else than Sarraute did: to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’ in the novel and to ‘turn towards what is free, sincere and alive’.
I turned away from this immediately and went on to finish Spurious
, for fear of tainting the rest of the novel with this extra-textual irritant. I returned to read the rest of the interview from which the above is excerpted, and wasn’t surprised to find it interesting and annoying in equal doses. It’s worth reading: Literary Melancholy
I don't exactly take exception to Iyer’s points on the novel, but I do find them puzzling. The idea of leaving behind what is "dead" in the "character-based" novel--well, yes, let me revise my first sentence: I’m annoyed. Thinking of characters as outdated, Victorian notions that have no place in a truly forward-looking, or even a truly contemporary, piece of writing is mystifying bullshit, coming as it does from a writer whose own excellent novel features two characters who are quite clearly defined. W.'s hilarious bullying, his self-hatred, his laziness, his willingness to dump on the narrator [who is named as "Lars" after a few dozen pages]--these are certainly traits of character, which, allied with the copious dialogue [dialogue being inextricably linked to character] form a persona on the page.
As for the narrating "Lars"? W. describes him for us, quite ungenerously, likely inaccurately. These descriptions, added to Lars's narrating voice, and his willingness to tolerate W.'s company and withering evaluations, amount to a type of characterization that isn't boring, staid, or Victorian, but that certainly isn't a groundbreaking, "new," essentials-only denuding of the novel to its essential qualities.
We know where these men work, where they live, what movies they watch, what books they read. We know what they worry about when they go home. We know how they speak. These are characters, and Spurious is a character-based novel. I fail to see the problem with this; I fail to see how a novel lets itself down by containing characters. W. and Lars are both enormous devotees of Kafka, whose stories hove a bit closer to this apparent goal of characterlessness--the Joseph Ks and Samsas are not less than human, but they do lack enough definite features that they can pass as any/every human. No need to say that I have no problem with the way Kafka writes--I'm not an idiot, or Kingsley Amis [whose own work is good enough for me to forgive his frequent failings as a reader]--nor do I think that the way Kafka writes about characters should be taken as a prescription for the proper way to write all novels from this point forward.
Even Robbe-Grillet, who is mentioned by Iyer in that excerpt, didn't escape from character altogether, as far as my own limited reading of his work reflects. While we may read the manner in which the watch salesman of Le Voyeur experiences time in an unconventional manner, we still experience that salesman, the collection of desires and imaginings that make up his character. The idea of going beyond, of re-inventing, may well be essential for the creation of interesting work in literature, but the notion that the novel needs an overhaul every dozen or so years belongs to those who see the progress of art as a series of movements leading toward the perfection of the form, at which point it falls into obsolescence. It doesn't work that way.
Does Iyer do anything in this book that approaches the novelistic innovations of, say, the Modernists? Woolf and Joyce, to name a couple? Spurious is quite a bit more conventional in its structure than The Waves or even a Joyce-lite such as Portrait. The linear novel of characters has survived and thrived through the twentieth and twenty-first despite all the fascinating tangents that have developed, feeding on what is new, but never becoming irrelevant. And why should the linear novel of characters be irrelevant? It persists in reflecting the ways in which we tell events and people to ourselves.
There are new ways of getting at this telling, but they will only be different, not more effective than the ways that already exist on the shelf--the persistence of excellent, relevant new writing of all stripes seems to indicate that there is no pure, new way forward. How many times could Ezra Pound exhort his fellow artists to "Make it New" before someone replied "Fuck off and draw some more Chinese symbols you don’t understand, Ezra, I'm trying to write"?
The “fewer-people-read” doomsaying is persuasive to a degree, but as Iyer’s selection from a ’67 Gore Vidal essay about the death of literature suggests, people, especially intelligent writers, have long been saying that the novel, that literature, is dead. The Vidal excerpt is an unfortunate preview of the essayist’s late career venture into endless doomsaying. The author of Spurious does seem to be aware that doomsday thinking is an easy shortcut to the appearance of profundity, even as his characters hilariously overlook this: W admires Lars’s adamantine apocalyptism, and isn’t the real Iyer’s sense of the death of literature just as unnecessary and self-negating? It’s even more tiresome than the old “rock is dead” chestnut [although rock might actually be dead. More on that some other day]. Isn’t it quite a bit more reasonable to assume that, as has been the case in the wake of modernism, in the wake of the new novel, in the wake of Vidal’s glum assessments, that a massive variety of literature of differing styles, approaches, priorities, appeal, quality, and importance will continue to appear?
Iyer concludes his portion of the email interview with this: “My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.”
Finding meaning in this, and finding importance in this meaning, is happily beyond me as a reader and as a writer. Soon, I’ll read Iyer’s manifesto on the subject, available here: The White Review.
Really, it could be argued that not having read the thing before I rebutted the author’s summary of it is irresponsible, but this is a blog, after all, so I’m allowed to do things like that. Consider it my tribute to the stultifying intellectual laziness of W. and his sidekick.