April 16th, 2011
I’m not going to lie: I checked this book out of the library in part because of the excellent cover image, which is a photo from William Hundley’s Entoptic Phenomena series. Plus, it’s published by Melville House, a small press I’ve been meaning to check out for a while now: I’ve walked by their bookstore/office a bunch of times, but often when the shop’s been closed. And then there was the back cover, which says that Spurious is a “hilarious British comedy” in which “two yammering intellectuals ponder life and fungus,” which seemed like a pretty bold cover blurb, like either you’re going to read that blurb and quietly slip the book back onto the shelf, or you’re going to read that blurb and think, “sign me up!” My reaction, clearly, was the latter one.
So, the book. Spurious is narrated by a writer named Lars, and the story’s about his friendship with another writer, W. Lars and W. live in England (Lars in Newcastle upon Tyne, W. in Plymouth) and travel to conferences together, which seems mainly to consist of drinking on trains and in foreign cities together, and the narrative voice, with its mix of aimlessness and repetitiveness and deadpan humor, kind of reminded me of Martin Millar’s writing, except more explicitly smart/philosophical (though as far as W.’s concerned, the narrator’s really quite stupid). There are many moments, sometimes funny, of angst and anxiety: at one point, Lars asks W. why he started drinking, and W. answers “the sense of the apocalypse” (8). Much of the book consists of the narrator recounting his conversations with W., and the slight remove that this creates is really appealing to me: you get lines of speech from W. but it’s not a whole conversation rendered in dialogue, it’s the narrator’s remembering of or transcription (or imagining) of the dialogue, dialogue and paraphrase (or invention): it makes it funnier, I think, and keeps it from being tedious in the way that dialogue in fiction can sometimes be so tedious.
As Lars and W. travel and drink and philosophize, W. obsesses about their mutual status as failures and makes casually mean remarks to Lars all the time, like:
‘When did you know?’, W. says with great insistence. ‘When did you know you weren’t going to amount to anything? Did you know?’, he asks, because sometimes he suspects I never did. Well he knows, at any rate, for both of us. (10)
and the two of them together are funnily creepy: Lars talks about how they’re looking for a leader, and have already managed to scare several of their idols off by telling them so, and by talking about the apocalypse, the Messiah, “the tohu vavohu that comes at the beginning and will return at the end” (17). At least Kafka, their spiritual model, being dead, can’t be scared away by their enthusiasm, which is also less creepy when directed at books/reading—yes, I know, I’m biased, but look:
It was the brightness of the dust jackets that drew him in, W. says. They were fluorescent orange, he said, a bright and baffling colour. And when he opened the book, it was as if he had crossed over a threshold, as though there were another light streaming from its pages, a splendour that has fascinated him ever since. (21-22)
Because the book spends so much time talking about thought, about what the characters are reading and writing (or not reading, and not writing), about the ideas they’re trying to grasp (and because the characters often repeat themselves, as they circle around the same ideas and concepts), I found the concrete bits of the narrative to be satisfying, a bit of a breather between Kafka and “infinitesimal calculus” and messianism and all the rest: a train ride through Poland and the dining car on the train, the streets of Plymouth and its houses that used to belong to ship’s captains, bits of the old city surfacing beneath the new one. Less charming, but still funny/engrossing even as it’s horrifying, is the narrator’s squalid flat with its mysterious and ever-present dampness: at one point, he consults six damp-proofing companies in a row, and each one gives him a different answer about what’s causing the trouble; the damp is distressing both as a literal thing and as a sign of greater chaos.
Iyer has a blog, and the novel was based on material from the blog, so if you’re intrigued, you can read more/get a sense of the tone of the book over there. Iyer also wrote an “A to Z” guide to some of the book’s ideas and reference points, which is featured on the Melville House blog.