Jan 25 2011

Spurious by Lars Iyer

Erik Morse

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In Spurious, Lars Iyer, a blogger and Maurice Blanchot scholar, explores the absurd and dysfunctional extremes of male bonding. Evoking literary duos like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Othello and Iago, Iyer's portrait of two insufferable academics fumbling for enlightenment illustrates what the author comically calls the most honorable cruelty: friendship.

More dramaturgic than narrative, Spurious focuses on the prolix conversations of two supercilious Canadian critical theorists, W. and Lars, as they meander across Europe and sift through the history of continental philosophy. W., appropriately christened, in the high-modernist tradition of Kafka, as a single letter, is the alpha male—a pompous authority on German existentialism (though from Toronto, he considers himself "old European") who regrets his seduction by the novel, preferring the inviolability of calculus and God. Lars, on the other hand, is slovenly and undisciplined; his only redeeming trait, according to his best friend, is a total lack of shame. While W. pontificates, Lars can only muse; while W. aspires to "genius," Lars is content with his low-level academic status. To W., the only thing more despicable than Lars's mental and physical languor is his modest domicile, unkempt and lately infested with mold—a portent of something sinister for the frustrated existentialist. "You are the sign of the End," W. announces to his friend mockingly, with the apocalyptic drama of a Talmudic prophet.

In fact, religion, or the incessant need to discuss it, provides much of the wink-wink humor in Spurious. W. and Lars hash over religious anxieties largely forgotten in contemporary letters: the coming of the Messiah, the death of God, the categorical imperative, and mathematical mysticism, all discourses supposedly purged in the existential fires of Heidegger, Jaspers, Levinas, and Kafka. Neither scholar belongs wholly to the postcontemporary zeitgeist, so their anachronistic conversations are recycled ad nauseam, like a tragicomic illustration of Nietzsche's eternal return. Iyer writes these exchanges in the style of a schizoid Laurel and Hardy routine, sometimes to sardonic effect. "How has it come to this?" W. constantly asks, one foot planted in the past and the other hovering in midflight above the apocalypse. Lars, in the role of bemused idiot, is dutifully quiet. "We're fucked, everything's fucked," W. cries. He then backpedals: "But we're essentially joyful . . . that's what will save us." Meanwhile, Lars can only manage lines like, "Do you love me?"

Solipsistic and chatty, Spurious is a comedy in the vein of Bernhard's The Loser or Beckett's The Unnameable. Echoes of "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" haunt every scene. But unlike those forebears, Iyer's caustic parody suffers from a reliance on a single shtick—the ridicule of ideologues—and the joke begins to seem like sketch comedy. It's as though Iyer were rehearsing W. and Lars for some slapstick colloquium, an event that, appropriately, we wait for but never arrives. A book devoted almost entirely to the undermining of ideas, Spurious too often gets stuck in its own head. For all its dialogue, it's hard not to feel like the book is talking only to itself.

Erik Morse's second book, Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South, will be published this year by Creation Books, as part of the Mondo Memphis series. He is a contributing writer for Bookforum, Frieze, The Believer and Modern Painters.

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