“We Need Cruel Comedy” | A Lars Iyer Interview

I first interviewed Lars Iyer in 2011, after the publication of his novel Spurious, the beginning of a trilogy that concluded with Exodus (my favorite of the three). I asked Lars to talk with me about his trilogy for an email interview, and we ended up discussing failure, comedy, optimism, academia, American writing, Britain in the mid-eighties, and his forthcoming novel Wittgenstein Jr.

You can get Lars Iyer’s trilogy from publisher Melville House, check out his blog, and find him on Twitter.

Biblioklept: Why a trilogy? Was that by design? Is it a trilogy?

Lars Iyer: Spurious was only a beginning. I wanted to historicise my characters, to present their friendship as part of a larger social, economic and political context. Otherwise, I risked merely contributing belatedly to the literature of the absurd.

Biblioklept: I want to talk about the end of Exodus but that seems like bad form for an interview. Spoilers, etc. Can you comment on where you leave your protagonists, or how you leave them, or why you leave them?

LI: I leave my protagonists roughly where they were at the beginning of the trilogy: rudderless, rather lost, full of a sense of their failure, but with their friendship, such as it is, intact. ‘No hugs, no lessons’: my characters haven’t learned anything…

larsBiblioklept: Why can’t they learn? Why the repetition? Why not a heroic arc? Why not a saving grace?

LI: Perhaps because learning implies a kind of resolution that I think is inappropriate for the characters. Kundera says something apposite about Don Quixote. Cervantes makes his would-be knight-errant set off in search of battles, ready to sacrifice his life for a noble cause, ‘but tragedy doesn’t want him’. Kundera goes on:

since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life. Poor Alonzo Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.

So it is with my trilogy. No tragedy! No heroism! No tragic catharsis, that would see the tragic hero being dragged back into line. And no comic catharsis either, in which the older norms of a traditional societal system are reaffirmed. So much comedy is self-congratulatory, self-reassuring: the humour of good cheer, of port and cigars. It shores up things as they are. This is why I can never bear to watch comedy on television. It’s so rare to see comedians turn the joke on themselves. We need cruel comedy. Black comedy, which laughs at itself laughing…

Why the use of repetition in my novels? Because I want to portray the breakdown of things as they are, not once, but again and again. Failure, without amelioration. Serio-comic breakdown, without restitution. Anomie. Helplessness. Crushed hope. How else to acknowledge the prose of our lives?

Much of the humour of Don Quixote, depends on the contrast between lofty ideals and the concrete, everyday, corporeal life. The humour of my trilogy is analogous – but, of course, our everyday is utterly changed! A generalised precarity, un- and under-employment, free-floating anxiety, consumerism, the emphasis on self-representation, the sense that history is over, that politics is all played out, that financial and climatic catastrophe loom…

The tragedy of everyday life is that it’s not even tragic. It never reaches the lofty heights of tragic grandeur. Well, nor do my characters. When W. is at his most wretched, he cannot even die – that’s the end of Dogma. When W. is at his most revolutionary, participating in his own version of the Occupy movement, as at the end of Exodus … well, I won’t spoil the story, but it won’t surprise readers of previous books in the trilogy that there is neither a heroic arc nor a saving grace. Continue reading ““We Need Cruel Comedy” | A Lars Iyer Interview”

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A Riff on Lars Iyer’s Novel Exodus

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I. Trilogy

Exodus is the third entry in a trilogy that Lars Iyer began with Spurious and Dogma.

What happens in Exodus?

Not much (but also maybe everything—like all sorts of philosophical investigations and intellectual adventure and despair and potential revolution and symbolic death, etc.).

If you’ve read Spurious and Dogma you’d expect this.

There is a quest though in Exodus, a quest that feels more visceral, more real, cuts closer to the bone than in the first two entries.

What is this quest?

Do our heroes W. and Lars vanquish despair? Figure out Kafka?

Do they save humanity (or at least the humanities department)?

Do they finally cast the One Ring into Mount Doom?

(They go on a lecture tour).

II. Quest

What is the connection between Kierkegaard and capitalism?: that’s our question, W. says. What does Kierkegaard tell us about the despair of capitalism?

And

‘The true and only virtue is to hate ourselves’, W. says, reading from his notebook.

And, perhaps more specifically

Of course, they’re going to close all humanities courses in British universities, W. says . . . They’re simply going to marketise education, W. says. They’re simply going to turn the university over to the free market. They’re going to submit philosophy to the forces of capitalism . . .

And

Imagine it! Two plastic cups of Plymouth Gin might usher in the reign of peace, W. says.

And

There are no jobs in philosophy — everyone knows that. No jobs in academia!

And etc.

III. The Call to Adventure

This is our last tour, W. says. He feels that strongly. Something’s going to happen. Something’s about to happen. . . Why does he feel such a sense of dread?

IV. The Road of Trials

Gin, Deleuze, Kafka, Kierkegaard, gin, Blade Runner, Guy Debord, postgraduate students, linguistic stupidity, anxiety over what Alan Badiou is doing right this very minute, gin, Gandhi, Marx, the blogosphere (so-called), Bartleby, Moses, God, logical-mathematical stupidity, the Talmud, gin, bodily-kinesthetic stupidity, cheap food, the Thames, Oxford, Rosenzweig, interpersonal stupidity, gin, Bela Tarr, Manchester, Wikipedia, gin, intrapersonal stupidity, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Middlesex, Weil, naturalistic stupidity, Abraham and Isaac, Old Europe, sports science students, moral stupidity, Solomon Maimon, gin, Plato (turning in his grave), public houses, existential stupidity, Kant, a friend from Taiwan, a plenary speaker, sartorial stupidity, gin, Krasznahorkai, blowing a great horn to have the horde come running (like that guy in Anchorman), a Dostoevskian innocence or a Grossmanian selflessness, religious stupidity, Master/Blaster as a metaphor for the mind-brain problem, Canadian laughter in the glittering light (etc.), Essex Postgraduates, gin, gin, gin, job security, painting-and-decorating stupidity, hangovers, posh people eating lunch in the sun, settling for cans of Stella from the trolley, philosophy of walking, gin, romantic stupidity, gin, culinary stupidity, gin, stupidity stupidity.

Revolution!

V. The Magic Flight

Alcohol makes people speak, that’s its greatness, W. says. It makes them religious, political, even as it shows them the impossibility of religion and the impossibility of politics. Drinking carries you through despair, W. says. Through it, and out beyond it, if you are prepared to keep drinking right all through the night.

VI. Apotheosis

W. dreams of the profound slumber from which we would rise reborn, ready for the morning, ready for work. He dreams of the great day that would follow our night of rest, and of the great ideas that would flash above us like diurnal stars.

How is it still alive in him, the belief that he might wake into genius?, W says. How is it that he still believes, despite everything, that he is a man of thought?

VII. Freedom to Live

Thought is the hangman, our hangman, W. says. Thought has its nooses ready just for us.

VIII. Cult Fiction

Judgment, evaluation, criticism: Exodus—the Spurious Trilogy, if that’s what we’ll call it—has reserved its own special place in the world of cult fiction. These novels (if they are in fact novels) perform their own deconstruction. They delineate metacognition. They frustrate. They are simultaneously sad and funny, and even a little bit scary, at least if you earn your bread by academicizin’.

They frustrate. Wait, do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.

These novels dissect the problems of philosophy against the backdrop of late capitalism, but part of this dissection is also the covering up of the dissection: the fear, the failure, the despair, the doom. (Hence the anesthesia, the gin). So that the novels seem to be a series of references, contours, quirks, loops of dialog, declamations, insults . . . That the novels take their own central subject as the failure to mean, to communicate—and then perform these failures: deferral, delay, intellectual suspense. And that these suspensions replace the furniture and sets of the traditional novel, etc. Maybe I’m failing to mean. I’ve anesthetized myself a bit, I do admit.

I get it. I mean, that’s maybe what I mean, or hope to mean to say about these novels: That meaning is hard, that saying meaning doing thinking is hard; that thinking afteragainstbeyond other thinkers is hard, painful, produces despair, dread, etc. Maybe that’s why I like these novels. Because I think that maybe I get them even as I doubt that I do get them.

IX. An Idea

Publisher Melville House might consider putting all three of these books into one epic volume.

X. A Question

Do the eagles ever show up to fly W. and Lars out of Mordor?

This Is Not a Review of Lars Iyer’s Exodus

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Exodus with Trash and Sticks
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Exodus with Stream
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Exodus with Abandoned Kmart
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Exodus with Empty Patriotic Chairs Facing Little League Baseball Game
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Exodus with Empty Lot with Litter
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Exodus with Canadian Geese and Retention Pond
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Exodus with No Trespassing Sign
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Exodus with Stray Shopping Cart Behind Dumpster
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Exodus with Immobile Mobile Home
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Exodus with Boat
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Exodus with Cacti
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Exodus with Clapboard Church

Lars Iyer’s Exodus (Book Acquired, 1.15.2013)

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Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus presumably concludes the trilogy that began with Spurious and DogmaExodus picks up the adventures/failures of our tragicomic (anti)heroes Lars and W. Here’s publisher Melville House’s description:

With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply — although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerrilla philosophy movement — conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges — that will save the study of philosophy after the long intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.

For another, they must save themselves, perhaps by learning to play badminton after all. Gin isn’t free, you know.

Exodus is on deck in my reading stack.  I talked to Lars a few years ago about Spurious (and other stuff), and he brought up the idea of “exodus” (as in the concept, not the book) early on:

As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modeled on investment and return.

I love the cover on this one.