Foolish posturing atop the ivory tower
By Carolyn See,
The narrator of "Spurious," this short, academic, allegorical tale, is Lars - not, one hopes, too much like the one who wrote this book, which recently attained great popularity as a blog in England. The real Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. The Lars in the novel seems to be holding down an office job, or perhaps an administrative post at a university. Either way, he's wasting his time, as his merciless friend, "W.," constantly reminds him.
W. has made it his lifetime commitment to torment and denigrate poor Lars, and if W. is not very innovative or original, he's nothing if not persistent: He mocks Lars's speech: "You stammer and you stutter, and you swallow half your words." This must come from Lars's body's rebellion: "Something inside you knows you talk rubbish. Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth." But W. is just getting started. "When did you know you weren't going to amount to anything?" He refers to Lars as "the idiot in the forest," and asks him, "Do you think it's possible to die of stupidity?" Actually, W. doesn't think too much of himself or his friend. He dismisses them both as "apes" and torments them both for their inability to think (which is sad since they're both self-proclaimed intellectuals).
W. is bitterly competitive, even as he pretends to dismiss the hapless Lars. "His IQ's higher than mine," Lars notes. "Just a little bit, but that's what separates us, man from ape. And he's from a higher class than me."
"I have manners," W. tells his friend. "You have no manners. . . . Why do you keep touching your chest so much? Does it arouse you? Keep your hands on the table where I can see them. Read your book."
During this particular exchange, W. and Lars are traveling through continental Europe, trying to discover some of the dignity and profundity of the Old World. They're searching for ancient and venerable thoughts, but not coming up with all that much. We never know what Lars actually thinks about the world of knowledge. He has his own personal problems, which have to do with the degeneration of his hideous basement flat back in England. W., to his credit, focuses his mind on loftier thoughts, although they are riddled with cliches. W. is convinced, for instance, that the end of the world is nigh. The apocalypse is coming along any minute now, or maybe it's already swung by, and he and Lars just haven't noticed. W. is also fascinated by the possible coming of the Messiah - though he doesn't believe in God. But W.'s intellectual reach more than exceeds his grasp. He's forever trying to read the great thinkers of our civilization in their original languages, except that he's forgotten all his Latin and Greek. Perhaps that's one of the reasons he can't cease hounding the pitiful Lars, who is - in W.'s eyes, at least - repellently fat.
When you come down to it, there's not much these discontented companions can do - except drink. And this they do with pure enthusiasm, saluting the oceans when they pass one, considering pouring libations into rivers. But they'd rather keep their alcohol to themselves: "Last night," Lars remembers, "we had a bottle of red wine, then beer, then we drank Tequila from the bottle. Then we finished off the bottle of Plymouth Gin, then a bottle of Cava and then a bottle of Chablis."
The truth is, these men have both come up against a philosophical blank wall. Perhaps they are at the end of a certain kind of time, a certain way of thinking and mapping out the world. The old world is gone, and the new one hasn't come yet. If W.'s rhetoric doesn't make this point, poor Lars's flat does. The place is mysteriously drowning. All the electric fans (philosophical hot air?) can't change the apartment's inexorable decline. "I'm freezing," W. rants at Lars. "How can you live like this? And it's dark. There's no light. I can't see anything. And it's damp."
"It's better than it was," Lars answers lamely, but he knows he's lying. His way of living is washed up.
Who should buy this book? Intellectuals who face intellectual troubles in their own lives. There's a lot of biting satire about the shortcomings and general foolishness of the so-called life of the mind. This is graduate student wit, which is fearsomely funny if you know the grad students and professors in question, but really not as funny if you don't. And reading this in blog form must have been easier; in one long narrative string, however clever, it becomes relentless.
See reviews books for The Post every Friday. This Sunday in Outlook l Why we expect more from technology. l One year in a closing auto plant. l America's largest slave revolt. l Where's the rest of the universe hiding? l Why was J.D. Salinger hiding?
By Lars Iyer
Melville. 188 pp. $14.95