12 March 2011

Monkey butlers

Spurious, by Lars Iyer (Melville House)

It is near to the end of days, shortly before the appearance of a “stupid Messiah”. Two British men, employed somehow in academia, muse on their lack of success and incapacity for real thought while drinking too much gin. “We are Brod and Brod, we agree, and neither of us is Kafka.” Sometimes they travel to a conference, and drink too much there instead. One of the friends insults the other with spectacular, relentless cruelty. The insultee also has to deal with a damp problem in his flat that gradually assumes apocalyptic proportions of sweating metaphor.

That is all that happens in Spurious. If Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet had just sat around bitching instead of investigating the world’s knowledge, the result would have resembled this novel. It is a tiny marvel of comically repetitive gloomery.

The character who endures the insults and has the damp problem shares a first name with the author: he is Lars. His friend is referred to only as “W.”, and the majority of the text consists of Lars’s uncomplaining reports of W. abuse of him. “Something inside you knows you talk rubbish,” W. says. “Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth.” Or: “I like it when you whine in your presentations. […] Like a sad ape. A sad ape locked up with his faeces.” Or, pointing at a shadow on the water when they are on a ferry: “Look: the kraken of your idiocy.”

W. admits he is an idiot too. “We should be drowned like kittens, he says, for the little we’ve achieved.” Yet what remains terribly important to this wonderfully monstrous creation — hideously proud of his new “man bag”, brutally competitive, and dismissive of his friend’s problems — is that he is, on his own estimation, just a little less stupid than his friend, whom he can then denigrate to a degree that makes the reader cringe happily. (What might Lars have been like if he had lived elsewhere? “A better person,” W. thinks, “taller, with some nobility of character.”)

Is Lars really as much of an idiot as W. claims? (Would W.’s behaviour be more or less cruel if he were?) All we know is what Lars tells us, and the prose is tuned to such a perfect deadpan that it is hard to be sure, even when the narrator performs an act of simple but striking poetry, evoking, say, “the end of the night […] after we’ve drunk a great deal and the sky opens above us”. But then we know from what Lars tells us W. says that Lars is sometimes capable of lucidity. (“W. immediately lays claim in his essays to any idea I might have,” he comments neutrally.)

What are Lars’s ideas, exactly? He won’t tell us. When W. opens Lars’s notebook, it contains only “Drawings of cocks, of monkey butlers.” In a beautifully indirect nano-scene, meanwhile, the two look through W.’s newly published book. “Neither of us can follow it,” Lars says. “Ah, the long example of his dog! It’s even better than the sections on children in his previous book!” That is all we learn of the book. More would be superfluous.

Is Lars’s impassive recording of W.’s despairingly vicious buffonery a kind of brilliant revenge? Alternatively, or even if so, is there behind the melancholy, purposeless farce of this novel something like a homage to the idea of friendship, or a bracing philosophical theory of it? Well, Lars isn’t going to tell you. Neither, I suppose, am I.