“We consider ourselves to have work to do,” agree Lars and W., the twin protagonists of Lars Iyer’s Exodus. “That’s our idiocy, and our salvation.” Throughout Iyer’s first novel, Spurious; his second, Dogma; and the final entry in his trilogy, out this month, the two friends contemplate how they might aid “real thinkers” and their role in the end of the world.
If Laurel and Hardy stumbled into Mike Leigh’s Naked, the result might resemble Iyer’s novels. Composed largely of abusive, gin-soaked exchanges between two minor intellectuals, Spurious, Exodus and Dogma recall the cultural acumen of David Markson and the heightened banter of Withnail and I. Iyer, writing as Lars, documents W.’s fits of self-loathing, his fits of Lars-loathing, and his attempts to understand Kierkegaard, as well as an endless series of collapses: the gradual decline and many plagues of Lars’s apartment, as mold invades and then rodents; the twilight of W.’s career, as university bureaucrats shunt the humanities department in favor of sports science. In Exodus, the duo prepares for a final, ineffectual revolutionary act.
Iyer’s own attempts at subversion have been more successful. In his literary manifesto, “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss,” he urges writers to note literature’s diminished cultural significance within their texts, to produce fiction as autopsy—to “show the author as ape, the author as idiot.” In Lars and W., he has created two very memorable such idiots.
Iyer serves as a lecturer in philosophy at the Newcastle University in northeast England. He began the project that became his literary trilogy by serializing Spurious on the Internet, which is also where he and I conducted the interview below. Even across a platform of limited conductivity such as Gmail, the charged indignation that runs through Iyer’s novels became still more apparent. He has the character of a serious person. He’s also responsible for some of the funniest fiction of the last several years.
The Rumpus: Given Spurious’s origins online and the way the novels in your trilogy all resist a traditional story arc, how did you determine when an instalment of the trilogy was finished?
Lars Iyer: It’s tempting to say of my fiction what Peter Handke says of his: “These narratives and novels have no story. They are only daily occurrences brought into a new order.” On this account, the daily occurrences in question were those reported on my blog; the novels simply reordered those occurrences into a whole. In a sense, this account is true, although Dogma and Exodus are no longer really rooted in blog posts that reported occurrences as they happened.
But there are stories in my novels: Lars’s battle with the damp, in Spurious, with the rats, in Dogma; the characters’ attempts at intellectual and political collaborations throughout the trilogy; the founding of an intellectual movement in Dogma, and the occupation of W.’s university campus in Exodus. These stories do, however, lack a traditional resolution—the damp does not disappear, and if the rats all die, they are replaced by flies; W. and Lars neither succeed nor fail in their collaborations. The arc is never completed. It’s not stories that I sought to do away with, then, but the idea that a story could be rounded-off, resolved. I wasn’t concerned so much with discrete events as with non-events, happenings that never really come to term. I wanted to let these non-happenings resonate with one another.
There are also thematic arcs in my trilogy—topics the characters discuss, events they undergo. Béla Tarr says that he wants to include the stories of landscapes, buildings, and other inanimate things in his films. For my part, I want to include stories of ideas, as they are discussed and tried on for size by my characters; as they are subjected to strange metamorphoses and criss-crossings; as they seem to take on a life of their own. True, I didn’t seek to resolve these “thematic” stories, either. It was enough to let them reverberate in a certain way—to let them echo with the more conventional story arcs at play in the novels. That’s what happens, say, with the theme of the everyday in my work, or with the theme of the apocalypse, or with the theme of speech.
How, then, do I decide where one novel ends and another begins? Perhaps only by feeling that I’ve exhausted something, that I’ve subjected something to a sufficient number of repetitions.
Rumpus: Was the writing of Exodus different in this respect, knowing that it was the final installment?
Iyer: In Exodus, I had to draw together the larger arcs which run from novel to novel. There had to be a sense of climax—even if it was only an anti-climatic climax! I draw on the Book of Revelations, the final book of the Bible, with its great vision of the apocalypse, which reveals God’s plan for the universe. But the apocalypse of Exodus reveals no plan and brings nothing to an end. Nothing is going to save the characters—not ideas, not politics, not even their friendship. So what happens next? Bathos. Another ordinary day. The same, the same, the same.
Rumpus: Following Lars and W. from place to place, from preoccupation to preoccupation, were you ever challenged to not write personal or intellectual growth into the story?
Iyer: I wanted the second and third volumes of the trilogy to explore the constitution of the characters—their shaping by various social and political factors. The backstories of both characters were of importance, not because they related personal or intellectual growth, but for exactly the opposite reason: because they conveyed a kind of entropy; a sense of exhaustion and failure. W. reports the collapse of his youthful capacity to work, when he started drinking and smoking as a postgraduate at Essex University, and [associating] with Lars. And W. recounts the stories that Lars has told him, about Lars’s ill-fated world-travels, his time spent unemployed and precariously employed, his years in a Manchester squat… Lars’s travails are granted a revelatory significance by W. W.’s sure that the sad stories he recounts from Lars’s past testify to something important—perhaps to the essence of capitalism, or the essence of religion.
Rumpus: For the uninitiated, Americans like me or people anywhere outside the academic world, how would you describe the health of the humanities at British universities? (That is, how many steps away are you from teaching badminton?)
Iyer: British universities are going the way of American ones. There has been an effective privatization of almost all university degree subjects in the last couple of years, with undergraduate fees doubling and tripling. This will lead British students to graduate with the kind of debt to which American students have become accustomed. At the same time—and, again, Britain follows America in this—there has been a push for universities to squeeze out less “vocational” courses.
Rumpus: W.’s sports science students are, without exception, resistant to his attempts to tacitly teach philosophy. Are you aware of any successful efforts to push back against these trends, either from students or from faculty?
Iyer: There’s a whole army of very well-educated and committed lecturers who find themselves in environments that appear quite unfriendly to speculative thought. I correspond with a guy in the U.S. who smuggles in the most abstruse continental philosophical thinkers into the modules he teaches on medical ethics. I’m sure this occurs all over the place.
Rumpus: Since you’re in the United States this February, I also wanted to ask, how have the U.S. readers you’ve met responded to the trilogy? I’m curious because of the cliché about Americans as fundamentally more optimistic than the British—Superman comics versus violent sci-fi anthology 2000 A.D., The Office U.S. versus The Office U.K., those points of contrast… Now that we’re all apocalyptic thinkers, do you think British misanthropy is more relatable to audiences outside the region?
Iyer: British misanthropy isn’t nearly as widespread as you might think. Over the last thirty years, our country has been steadily colonized by a compulsory positivity. In a theatre bar near where I live in Newcastle, they’ve put up the word “lovely” on the wall, in seven-foot high letters. L-O-V-E-L-Y: spelt out in capitals, without context, without justification. What inanity, and in a city that has been subjected to the most stringent of council cuts! L-O-V-E-L-Y: in the midst of devastation! This empty positivity is everywhere in contemporary Britain, as it is more generally in the West.
Eric G. Wilson has argued that the happy capitalists of American see the world narcissistically:
From an early age we are taught to translate the creatures around us—though they be toads that glisten or mica shining at noon—into clean surfaces on which we can project our dreams of total happiness.
But this narcissism depends on a kind of performance, an artifice—the following, as Wilson has it, of a “prefabricated script, some ten-step plan for bliss or some stairway to heaven.” As such, it passes over the reality of the world: toads, mica, council cuts, devastation… This is what makes so many people so alienating to be around. They have no sense of reality. They feel unconstrained by real things—by things right in front of them. They’re not able to attune themselves to people who are not like them. They can’t register despair and failure. The only word in their brain is, Lovely. At the same time, as Wilson argues, the happy capitalist is full of a kind of unease, to which the drive to artifice is a response.
It would be wrong, I think, to suppose that this unease is a question of what the existentialist calls anxiety or despair. Wendy Brown is very lucid on this matter. Neoliberal capitalism does not produce individualized despair—a sense of anxiety over the vanishing of meaning from the human world—so much as what she calls “quotidian nihilism”—a vaguely-felt sense of pointlessness, which can be addressed by understanding yourself “as a speck of human capital, which needs to appreciate its own value by making proper choices and investing in proper things.” It is as such a “speck of capital” that we choose a romantic partner, a college at which to study, a career, or a particular investment. Without providing meaning, neoliberalism provides a certain direction, Brown argues. It provides the kind of “ten-step plan for bliss” that Wilson writes about, even as this “stairway to heaven” cannot wholly banish a diffuse sense of meaninglessness.
It is striking that the contemporary insistence on positivity, on artifice, of narrating your life in a certain way, is at one with the insistence on redemptive life-arcs, on the implicit idea of life as a journey, that we find in contemporary literary fiction. Both are a response to a more general unease, a free-floating, collectively-experienced nihilism.
In our happy-happy, lovely-lovely times, the past exists only as an opportunity for sentimentalism, the present as a moment in ongoing personal growth, and the future as some vague dream of fulfillment. How, in this context, can this unease be marked? How do you register the distance between an inane, corporate optimism, and the reality of financial upheaval, debt, climatic change and so on? By a hyperbolic performance of despair—an antidote to the hyperbolic performance of happiness! By a re-valuation of the significance of mental suffering, attempting to internalize it, to undergo it, to ponder it rather than let it wander through our lives. By re-narrating our disasters, reclaiming failure as a legitimate response to our social conditions, as a way of witnessing the truth. By heeding the to-and-fro of everyday speech—our grumblings, our laughter, our little protests at the world, seemingly so unimportant. By recapturing ridiculous moments of joy snatched from the jaws of stress and frustration. By remembering what there can be of friendship, what there can be of love. By observing the stress lines on the executive’s face. By tracking the slow hurricane of quotidian nihilism, as it drains life of all meaning and direction, as it plays out in the most ordinary of circumstances. By writing about the misery of adolescents in the suburbs. By writing about futureless youth. By unleashing a wild, misanthropic laughter at the imposture of the happy capitalist. By decrying the destruction of the commons. By quoting from the books we read that help to diagnose the horror. By undoing all story arcs, letting them spin themselves into nothing.
Rumpus: “The contemporary insistence on positivity”—this phrase struck me because of all the doom and gloom a person can find even in the most mainstream, revenue-generating cultural products of the last few years. The narratives don’t necessarily reflect this kind of positivity. The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead—the success of these franchises depends on audiences buying into the possibility of collapse. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises—I think this is an ideologically incoherent film, but at least a film that’s ambivalent about the status quo and the uses of power.
Are these immensely popular stories—that literally depict the collapse of society—release valves for unease? I can’t consider any of them radical pieces of work, but I’d like to know how they fit within the trends you’ve outlined here.
Iyer: The films and television programs in question concretize our unease and dread, in stories full of human agency. Even if the heroes in such works have many elements of the villain, and the villains something of the hero, the belief in broadly meaningful human action is not in question. Batman has agency—he can change things, however difficult this might be. This is a marvellous fantasy, especially when compared with the directionlessness and pointlessness of our lives!
Here is A., a fictional character in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or:
…[L]ife is not as it is in the novel, where one has hardhearted fathers and nisses and trolls to battle, and enchanted princesses to free. What are all such adversaries together compared with the pale, bloodless, tenacious-of life nocturnal forms with which I battle and to which I myself give life and existence?
Everyday life under neoliberalism doesn’t allow for much in the way of meaningful human action. Who are the villains of films and television programmes, compared with the pale, bloodless but tenacious sense of meaninglessness that passes through our ordinary lives? What are the battles of The Dark Knight, compared with the more diffuse struggle we maintain against “quotidian nihilism”? If the Italian Marxists my characters so admire are right to tell us that there has been a “step-change” in capitalism, that capitalism now operates directly on our souls, then it is we ourselves, body and soul, who give life and existence to neoliberalism.
Rumpus: Elsewhere, you’ve described Exodus as an attempt to write a “‘big’ book,” but it’s also very much a book of its time, taking place around the financial collapses of a few years ago, not shy of referencing Anchorman when appropriate—its concerns are as localized as they are universal. What do you consider your work’s relationship with posterity?
Iyer: I have been determined to plunge my fiction into cultural ephemera of the most transitory kind. My characters live in the everyday world that is so familiar to us that it seems almost invisible. My aim is to make it visible, to concretize, at the most banal level, what it means to experience both “quotidian nihilism” and the kinds of “quotidian joy” to be found in banter and chitchat. Perhaps it is part of the business of fiction to show how the universal plays out at the level of the local—to concretize abstractions like “precarity” or “capital flight”; to show how corporate restructurings and lay-offs, “non-linear” methods of organizing the workforce, are actually experienced—or rather, as Richard Sennett has argued, as they damage our very capacity to register and accumulate experience.
As for posterity…will there be anyone reading novels in twenty years time but literary scholars? Will there be anyone left alive in a hundred years time?
Rumpus: In your manifesto, you discuss literary life as “a dead ideal,” and our loss of literature as a source of tragedy and revolution. A reader senses that Lars and W. also mourn this loss, to the degree that they’re aware of it, but they’re also both total boobs. What advantages did you find in using figures of fun to engage with a loss that genuinely troubles you?
Iyer: Yes, the characters are first of all ridiculous, even as they might have the right instincts about certain things. To be sure, we laugh at them, but I hope that we also laugh with them—their blackly comic treatment of certain topics resonates with a more general cultural uncertainty, a sense of lost norms, of disorientation, to which, I think, we can all relate. I think the reader can take W. and Lars seriously when they mourn modernism’s sense of the importance of literature and philosophy, or when they decry the effects of contemporary capitalism.
Rumpus: Similarly, a reader of Exodus can find evidence of the damage done by the privatization of education, and W. is at once a critic of capitalism and a ridiculous person. Did you ever feel that the range of your critiques was limited by the intellects of your characters?
Iyer: I have high regard for the intellects of my characters! W. makes sense of some difficult texts—those of [Franz] Rosenzweig, Hermann Cohen, Kierkegaard and others. Lars, the narrator, might seem idiotic, if you see him from W.’s perspective, but he is the narrator of the trilogy, and to narrate is, etymologically at least, to be an authority—one who knows. Lars, the narrator, knows what he’s doing! No idiot could have written my trilogy—or at least that’s what I tell myself!
Rumpus: Lars’s voice is deceptively complex—the first person gives us access to his interiority, in theory, but much of what we learn about Lars, we learn from Lars’s quoting of W.’s opinions about Lars. Much of this is abuse, of course, and a reader might be tempted to wonder why Lars sticks around.
Iyer: Lars, the narrator, tells us very little about himself directly. It is almost entirely through W.’s reported speech about Lars, that we learn about Lars. This creates a distance, which allows Lars to take on a mythical character. His outline is blurred; he doesn’t seem quite real. And it is because of this that I hope his reported experiences of meaninglessness and pointlessness take on a representative character. In W.’s accounts of him, Lars becomes a stand-in for a reader likewise searching futilely for a direction in life.
As you say, much of what W. says to Lars takes the form of insults. Why is Lars, the narrator, so careful to report these insults? There must be an element of enjoyment here. W. is paying real attention to Lars; his insults are bespoke, tailored exactly to the particularities of his friend—they are the very opposite of the generic blandishments the happy capitalists dish out to one another. W. insults Lars, I think, in the name of friendship. And it is in the name of friendship that Lars writes his trilogy, which is as much a tribute to W. as it is a piss-take.
Rumpus: Would you agree that as the reach of literature contracts, the barrier between high and low culture also becomes more porous? I’m thinking of what people are calling our Golden Age of TV. A program like Mad Men is executed with stylistic rigor and engages with the false promises of material society—with tragedy, if not revolution.
Iyer: Perry Anderson claims that television had a particularly big role in the breakdown of the distinction between “high” and “low” culture. The arrival of color television was, he argues, the technological watershed of the postmodern era. The barrier between high and low culture becomes irrelevant with the onset of color television. A great levelling occurs, which is no bad thing if we think of older snobberies towards popular forms.
And Anderson points to something else of interest: television did not have a modernist past. The continuous visual gabble that floods the popular imaginary is not rooted in the great innovations of the modern period. Of course, there are exceptions—we might think of the formal innovations of [British teleplay writer] Dennis Potter’s work. But, in general, television obliterates the memory of modernism, and the aesthetic and political energies associated with it.
Everyone says that the cultural vibrancy that was once found in the novel is now to be found in our “Golden Age of TV.” I’m in no position to judge. Certainly, Mad Men is magnificent (except for the first half of season three). Novelists can’t compete with this kind of immaculately-rendered realism. Nor can the novel compete with the ease with such a series can be enjoyed—simply turning on the television and relaxing on the sofa with your partner, while sipping a glass of wine. Reading is much more laborious, much less companionable. But this difficulty of reading—the difficult joy of reading literary fiction, where the word literary refers to what makes a book alien in some sense—still has a kind of importance. Anything that wrenches us from the easy enjoyment that defines our time.