People call Lars Iyer a ‘cult author,’ which is odd, because almost every paper to have reviewed him from here to Los Angeles has praised him endlessly. The ‘cult’ thing is probably down to people naturally associating innovative, serious and challenging art with the marginal. This no doubt plays up to Iyer’s own theories about the climate of contemporary literature, but the reception of these books tells quite a different story. While his manifesto claims masterpieces cannot be produced in our age, and that no contemporary literature could be as important as anything by Samuel Beckett, critics call his books masterpieces and constantly compare him to Beckett. His characters lament a dearth of new ideas and go on about a messiah whom they know will never arrive, while the books themselves seem to fulfil the books’ messianic hopes. It is as if the world is bent on contradicting Iyer’s literary pessimism.
Exodus is the last in a trilogy which includes the previous novels Spurious and Dogma. They evolved from spurious.typepad.com, Iyer’s blog, and their subject is the bitter friendship between two university philosophers – or would-be philosophers – W. and Lars. Their academic departments are in decline and neither of them are up to the job of producing a brilliant work of philosophy. Instead, W. spends three books analysing Lars’s shortcomings, brilliantly insulting him and talking about superior philosophers. There is no ‘plot.’ There is no sense of novelistic jeopardy, only cosmic jeopardy and gin drinking. Character is indirectly arrived at: Lars narrates but rarely tells us anything about himself, preferring to relate what W. thinks about him. The effect is one of negation, solipsistic and self-evasive at the same time, as if two mirrors had been pointed at each other. Everything in these books takes place at a remove. W. calls himself not a thinker, but ‘a friend of thought.’ He calls Lars a ‘friend of a friend of thought.’
Novels like this can easily go wrong. The trilogy’s success and power, therefore, seem to be part of the joke, as if Iyer has got everything right in the name of contrariness, just to get on our nerves. There is a superfluous joy to these novels, as if they occur instead of the ideas which the characters want to be having. They are satisfying paradoxes – ‘difficult’ books which are consummately readable; exuberant books about bleakness. They are apocalyptic cousins to the work of Geoff Dyer, another brilliant English writer who has been heavily influenced by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. I met Lars Iyer for a drink in the Trent, the Newcastle pub where Exodus begins.
Your books discuss a decline in culture, literature and to some extent intelligence. Has the keen and intelligent reception of your books given you hope for the above or merely confirmed your suspicions?
The reception of the trilogy has been unbelievably intelligent, and in a sense I was disappointed. I thought that the books would be scorned and the reviews would be absolutely terrible; I was even looking forward to quoting the worst bits on my blog. But as it turns out, the reviews have been extremely positive from the start, catching me entirely unawares …!
People have called your books ‘British comedies’. What’s all that about? Why is their sensibility ‘British’?
Well that’s something very hard to discern. You’re so much a part of Britishness as a British person that you can’t really tell what exactly it constitutes. But I would say that one thing you find in British comedy is a kind of bathos. Characters try to escape the mundane ordinariness of their lives by various means, but fail to do so. They’re brought up anticlimactically against that ordinariness, as if to say: this is all there is, and all there can be. A lot of laughs come from this. The danger is that the emphasis on bathos can be very conservative, serving a commonsensical rejection of high-falutin’ intellectual life, or political striving. British comedy can be too cosy. This is why I also draw on non-British traditions of black humour, as can be found in Céline, Beckett and Bernhard.
Are surprise and newness essential to the creation of an original book? Your books are original, but their ancestry is clear and traceable.
Surprise and newness are essential, for me – but a surprise and newness that are responsive to our times, that answer to what is new and different about our times. Certainly the literary ancestry of my books is clear. But so, too, I hope, is a kind of distance that I try to mark in my fiction with respect to the times which produced Blanchot or Beckett. For me, the conditions under which these authors worked were generally supportive of the ideal of literature. I allude to older forms of literature and philosophy, and do so not simply by imitating a style, but by incorporating bits of texts and potted life-stories into my narrative. The idea there is to point toward something that has occurred, and to try and show not necessarily its contemporary relevance but perhaps its contemporary irrelevance; the way it sits so oddly with our times.
Your characters cancel themselves out by speaking of and for each other. Lars, because he is often limited to what we hear from W., is mysterious and naturally floats free of a self. But W., with all his contradictions and his predictabilities, is incredibly well evoked. How important to your books is the traditional, faithful creation of character?
Character is crucial to me. These are character-based novels, even if my characters are presented in an unusual way. W. is present before us quite clearly: we learn about his likes and dislikes, we listen to his speeches, we’re witness to his hopes and dreams. But the character Lars is someone we can only access indirectly, through what W. says about him. You’re right to say that Lars is a bit nebulous as a character. We’re not exactly sure what he’s like, or whether what W. says about him is true. Lars, for W., embodies meaninglessness and chaos; he seems not so much a character as a kind of uncharacter, a vortex in which all sense and meaning disappear. Even a mythical character!
Your characters talk a lot about pathos. To what extent is a reader’s sympathy towards a character important to you and your intentions as a writer? Is there an interesting place for these sympathies in books which are explicitly against the sentimental?
Yes, the characters are supposed to be sympathetic. The reader has to be entertained. Entertainment is a very important thing to be able to do and if I’m not entertaining the reader then I’m not doing my job. I hope W.’s hyperbole, his idealism, his witty put-downs carry the reader along. And although Lars remains deliberately out of focus, I hope the reader also feels moved to identify with some of his melancholies and his desolations as W. reports them. You mentioned sentimentality: sentimentality is, for me, a particular horror of our time. There is a dreadful sentimentalised nostalgia for a generic past: cupcakes, Star Wars, jumpers for goalposts… There is also a sentimentalised yearning for a standardised future, too, which can be understood by couching intentions in the future perfect: we videotape the weddings that will have been special; we raise the child who will have been the most important thing in my life. We are urged to anticipate a time when we will have been at a street party for the birth of our future king, or we will have been sweeping our streets with a band of neighbours. So you see the mission that I’ve set myself: my novels are an attempt to puncture sentimentality, breaking through to a lost reality.
Elsewhere, you have stressed that your books are serious about serious issues: the evils of Capitalism, the destruction of the environment etc. But the consistent tone of your books makes it hard to know which bits are comic exaggeration and which are earnest laments.
For me, the art of exaggeration is the literary art of our times. It is only through exaggeration that we can express ourselves in this sentimental age; that we can break through to the truth. Exaggeration and wild despair: that’s the remedy. Hyperbole is all you have left when you’re being backed into a corner.
W. says that Lars weighs nothing he says or writes with ‘any consideration.’ But the pleasure most often afforded by your books is the old-fashioned appreciation of wit and aphorism; of considered delivery. How considered is your prose really?
Ah well, these novels are revised and revised… The amount of drafts I go through is unbelievable! Often I’m trying to capture something with a first-take feel, so I may well keep things which are written in one draft, there’s a lot of rewriting and additions in the manuscript. Exodus in particular took an age and I cut an awful lot of material. I don’t even want to think about it …
Your manifesto, which you called ‘Nude in your hot tub, facing the abyss,’ adopts W.’s tone toward Lars. Why is this an appropriate tone in which to address literature?
My manifesto is an attempt to convey my frustration at what I feel is the sense of exhaustion of certain literary modes, which are unable to measure up to sentimentalism and kitsch. It is meant as a provocation, which means that I over-characterise my position. I don’t find much of a sense of this in contemporary fiction; I don’t find a facing up to the horrors of our time, so to that extent I felt that a hectoring tone was absolutely necessary.
You say there that writers have been made to become publicity savvy. As a thinker, or a ‘friend of a friend of thought’, how did you take this?
It’s very difficult to enter into publicity. Twitter, Facebook – these things I resisted. In fact, I turned to the internet, to writing the blog from which the novels came, to escape the endless round of backscratching that can characterise academic life. My blog was anonymous. But when you publish you’re part of a team. I’m with a supportive independent publisher and I owed it to them to publicise my work. But the question then was, how can you do this without sacrificing all that you regard to be important? How can you do interviews and use Twitter in such a way that would honour the fiction and correspond with it in some way?
You talk about an ‘unliterary plainness’ of style being a must for writers of our age. Are you unmoved by fine sentences? Despite the directness of your literary prose, it is plain in a literary way: entirely rhetorical and never too far from a wonderfully loose elegance.
You know, I’m always caught out on this, because when I read novels which show an unliterary plainness I really don’t like them. I’m thinking here of Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family – I really did try to read this book and I gave myself plenty of time to spend with the text. I was really looking forward to it, everyone was out, I had about three hours, I began reading it and I just found it so dull! The accumulation of detail, the lack of rhythm, though of course I was reading in translation… So I’m not sure if I really am such a fan of unliterary plainness as opposed to literary plainness!
In light of this, do you have any advice to offer aspiring writers, which you might yourself not take seriously?
I’m in no position to give any advice! My God, people must be desperate if they’re turning to me for advice. But there’s the blogosphere. Publish your work online, in small bits. You’ll have a sense of an audience, and therefore a sense that writing just anything won’t suffice. You’re writing for someone, you’re trying to constitute an audience, earning their trust, bringing them back to your blog. You’re learning to entertain, and that’s a wonderful training, I think.
In the sense that your books came from a blog, do you regard them as discreet examples of digital fiction? Do the possibilities of digital fiction excite you, or does the idea of it fill you with despair?
‘Digital fiction’!I never thought of myself as writing digital fiction: I was recording real events and then exaggerating them wildly on the blog. Perhaps that is fiction. And perhaps what I do on Twitter is a kind of micro-blogging flash-fiction, I’m not sure… I view myself squarely as a novelist: blogging is just one compositional tool.
Exodus by Lars Iyer is published by Melville House (£10.99)