The Evil of Banality

My review of Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer. The Stinging Fly, 9 April 2020:

According to one school of thought, authors — whether consciously or not — always write the same book. As they never get it right, they feel compelled to start over again. Some give up the pretence, spending most of their careers toiling away at a single magnum opus. Others, cursed with beginner’s luck, are henceforth condemned to produce inferior iterations of their debuts. Lars Iyer — an enthusiastic exponent of Mark E. Smith’s ‘three Rs’ (‘Repetition repetition repetition’) — both proves and disproves this theory. To say that his first four novels are much of a muchness is an understatement, but their cumulative effect has led to a glorious breakthrough. Imagine the Spurious trilogy (2011-2012) and Wittgenstein Jr (2014) as two identical loops, running at slightly different speeds, falling in and out of sync, and you get a good idea of Nietzsche and the Burbs, which manages to be different from (and superior to) its predecessors, while remaining essentially the same. It may well be the first instance of verbal phase music.

This hilarious but also bittersweet coming-of-age tale chronicles the last ten school weeks of a group of disaffected sixth-formers — Paula, Art, Merv, and Chandra — in a bog-standard English comprehensive. United by their ‘rogue intelligence’ and outsider status among their peers — the beasts, trendies, and hordes of drudges for ever snacking and checking their phones — these self-styled ‘black holes’ form a ‘gang that hates everyone’ (or purports to do so) save for the new boy with the word ‘NIHILISM’ on his notebook. The latter is soon adopted as their intellectual guru and nicknamed Nietzsche, owing, in part, to a vague, but disputed, resemblance to the German philosopher:

Who? Merv asks.
Friedrich Nietzsche — the philosopher, Paula says. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Nietzsche.
Merv, investigating on his phone. Showing us a photo. The new boy doesn’t look anything like him!
You have to look beyond the moustache, Paula says.
How? Merv says. All I can see is moustache.

The resemblance (if there is one) is not merely physical. Nietzsche’s life closely mirrors that of his namesake: he suffers from mental health issues, has a meddling, supercilious sister; falls in love with Lou (Lou Andreas-Salomé) who leaves him for Paula (Paul Rée), etc. Although we do hear his voice in conversation with the other smart-alecs, as well as through his intense blog entries — couched in grandiose, incendiary rhetoric — Nietzsche’s presence always seems distanced, almost spectral, as though he were hovering on the verge of erasure; never quite all there. His real name, significantly, is not disclosed at any stage. He is, above all, a talismanic figure: a figment of the gang’s collective imagination and constant subject of their choric speculation, gossip, and myth-making. ‘Pessimism,’ as Eugene Thacker observes, ‘is the last refuge of hope’ and this is what the new boy seems to offer from the outset: ‘The feeling that Nietzsche is the key to something. But what door will he unlock? The feeling that something’s going to happen. That something important is about to happen’. This feeling even outlasts his presence (he ends up in a mental hospital while the novel plays out without him). In fact, one could argue that he better embodies this feeling once he is no longer there and the gap between fantasy and reality — never more perceptible than when he is spotted behind the deli counter at Asda — is closed:

Nietzsche, in a hair net, taking orders from customers. Slicing meats. Cutting into wheels of brie. Scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs.
How can this be? The best mind of our generation, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs? The great philosopher of our time, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs?

During a heated exchange, Paula tells Nietzsche that he sounds ‘like some self-help guru’: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and all that,’ she adds by way of explanation. The irony, of course, is that she ignores that this last pearl of wisdom actually comes from the real Nietzsche. God, it seems, is not so much dead as endlessly dying, the desecration of the highest values having now reached the German philosopher himself. This may also account for the rather odd choice of epigraph: ‘You must have chaos in yourself to give birth to a dancing star’ has become such a cliché that appending it to this novel is akin to slapping a picture of the Mona Lisa on the cover of a book about Leonardo da Vinci. Iyer, a former philosophy lecturer, was obviously fully aware of this. The quotation — which, incidentally, Marc Almond references in the title of his latest album (Chaos and a Dancing Star) — is even turned into an upbeat disco song (‘Dancin’ Star. No “g”, Merv says’) towards the end of the book: ‘Don’t want your apo-cal-ypse / Just want your lips to kiss’! The true explanation, I feel, is to be found in an earlier passage, where Chandra argues that ‘All adolescents are philosophers. And all philosophers are adolescents at heart’. The author is trying to recapture the detonation that occurs when such aphorisms collide with bright young minds for the very first time, but hindsight allows him to register the attendant po-faced zealotry and accidental comedy, as well as the impossibly beautiful dreams thus conjured up.

Term time provides the novel’s armature, or straitjacket, with almost every chapter subdivided into seven-day entries. Chandra — the narrator, who is of Indian descent (as is the author) and wants to study creative writing (which Iyer teaches at Newcastle University) — comes across like a nihilistic Adrian Mole as a result of this quasi-diary format. The same activities and locales are revisited time and again: school lessons, inevitably, but also band practice (‘The guitar’s not a lead instrument in our band. It’s a texture. It’s part of the mesh’), snippets from Nietzsche’s blog (‘The tagline’s The Uselessness of Everything, Art says’), psychogeographical forays into Thames Valley suburbia (‘Asda — is this where we’ve come? Asda — is this our destination?’), experiments with recreational drugs (‘We’re searching for a North-West Passage of the mind’), nights out at The Ship (‘Why do we come here? Why do we do it to ourselves?’) and The Idiot book club (‘Maybe only an idiot can understand The Idiot, Paula says. You’re our last best hope, Merv’). Plot is almost entirely subsumed into these loops of weekly routine — suburbia’s brand of eternal recurrence. This, then, is a novel in which nothing happens, unless (as Nietzsche conjectures in his blog) ‘the nothing-is-happening is itself an event’.

The budding Übermenschen of Wokingham (Berkshire) have internalised all the anti-suburban tropes peddled by intellectuals — chief among them, the real Nietzsche — since the late 19th century. According to them, suburbia is an experiment in ‘low-meaning living’ that embodies the sheer ‘impossibility of philosophy’ today, the death of God, and the end of history: ‘History ended in the plastic lip of double-glazed doors. It ended in QPVC gutters. It ended in the mock-Georgian division in QPVC windows. In the fake grout between the fake brick of poured driveways…’. Chandra, here, is singing from Zarathustra’s hymn sheet: ‘What do these houses mean? Truly, no great soul put them up in its image! Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box?’ When he and Art relish the prospect of Wokingham’s annihilation — as a result of terrorism or flooding — one inevitably hears an echo of John Betjeman’s ‘friendly bombs’ raining down on Slough. The gang’s main stumbling block, however, is the ‘sheer positivity’ of the leafy English suburbs, how benign and ‘perfectly pleasant’ they are; the way Wokingham ‘smiles back at your despair’, ‘hopes that you’ll have a nice day in your despair’. Tana (one of the two posh girls they regularly smoke spliffs with) points out that, according to the Telegraph, Wokingham is actually the best place to live in England. Chandra attempts to argue, counter-intuitively, that this may be the very reason why a fellow student committed suicide the previous year. Naturally, no one is really convinced. As Noelle (the other posh girl) puts it, ‘most people live in Hell compared to this’. Henley, which the gang visit during a revision break, turns out to be ‘so lovely’ that Paula, Merv, and even Chandra, start dreaming of living there happily ever after, despite Art’s righteous protestations: ‘These are islands of prettiness amidst the horror. But that only makes the horror worse’. Even Reading — rebranded the ‘anti-Paris’ after they discover, much to their disgust, that the Beckett archives are kept at the local university (‘probably the first post-thinking uni’) — has its charm on a sunny day.

What Nietzsche sees, however, is far more sinister: a Ballardian nightmare of ‘infinite sprawl’; endless ‘suburbs without ‘urbs, without a city, without a centre’ orbiting the void. The suburbs — so easily overlooked owing to the evil of banality — grow dangerously uncanny as soon as one pays them close attention. Like his philosophical forebear, Nietzsche resolves to relinquish negative nihilism (the lament that life is meaningless or an aberration) in favour of positive nihilism (the affirmation of the world as it is). His mission becomes ‘to truly enter the suburbs’ by embracing their very nothingness — the eternal recurrence of the same. The closest we get to such an affirmation is through the eponymous band, Nietzsche and the Burbs, whose Dionysian music aspires to a radical transformation of life.

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey analysed how suburbia came to embody everything that was wrong with modernity in the eyes of (mostly) upper-class authors and thinkers. There is, however, an alternative, more recent, more working-class (or lower-middle-class) history of the English suburbs, written by young suburbanites themselves — the Bowies and Siouxsie Sues. In this version, suburbia is the blank space of boredom and conformity from which subversive and flamboyant pop culture springs. The non-place that tells you, once you reach a certain age, that life is elsewhere. In 1991 Jon Savage could still note that ‘The dreamscape of suburbia has a powerful and unrecognized place in England’s pop culture’ (England’s Dreaming). Thankfully, this terrain has been charted by countless writers and artists in the intervening years, most recently by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) in her memoir, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia (2019). Lars Iyer’s anti-heroes recognise that they come too late to be truly part of this tradition — they even reference Simon Reynolds’ Retromania (2011) — but it does not stop them from taking their music very seriously indeed. For Art — whom Paula describes as the band’s Brian Eno — the solution is to embrace their belatedness — ‘to go posthumous’ — and produce ‘the music that comes after music’ (a strategy which recalls the author’s own 2011 post-literary manifesto). Such music cannot just be about music, however; it must be ‘about everything’:

The band’s got to be our whole life, Art says. We should live the band, do nothing else, just write and practice and play. It’s got to be all we think about, day and night. We can’t separate the music from our lives — not anymore. Living — that’s the art. We’ve got to start a new society. That’s what a band has to be: a clue to a new way of life.

The band is construed as an ‘escape-pod’ that will allow its members — should they succeed in crafting a great album — to redeem their suburban lives by making ‘retrospective sense of it all’: ‘There was a direction all along, we could say — our direction. We’ve become masters of time — our time’. Time — reclaimed, regained — is very much of the essence. The entire novel is steeped in impending end-of-school melancholia, which finds an echo in Nietzsche and the Burbs’ approach to music. On one occasion, at the beginning of band practice, the sound of the amplifiers turned up loud — ‘The feeling of forces gathering. Of something about to begin’ — prompts Chandra to reflect that they are only ‘going to ruin it by actually playing something’. Ahead of their first (and possibly last) gig, he wishes time could be frozen just before they cease to be a bedroom band for ever. ‘I like beginnings,’ he explains, ‘When it’s all potential.’ Art wants the band to play that potential without ever actualising it. In other words, he wants them, as he puts it (sounding like a deranged Martin Hannett-style genius producer) to ‘not play’ – to play without ever playing out. To play what they ‘could play, rather than anything [they] actually play’: music in which the songs are merely implied. To play ‘becoming without end’ or resolution: ’It’s like being on the verge of coming but never actually coming,’ he raves, during one particularly joyous rehearsal. This music is also Chandra’s (and hence Iyer’s). His waves of elliptical sentences, shorn of articles. Like jottings. Like language coming to life. In motion. Always provisional.

Above all, Art wants the band to play truant by absconding through the gap it has opened up between potentiality and actuality — that rent in the fabric of time. Nietzsche and the Burbs is a paean to those languorous summer afternoons, on the cusp of adulthood, when time stretches to eternity, allowing us to pull ‘moments out of moments like conjuror’s scarves’:

We learned real things by not paying attention. We heard true things by not listening, by letting our gazes wander. Time was our teacher: time between tests, between lessons.


Present Absence

Lars Iyer, “Impossible Literature,” interview by Antônio Xerxenesky, 3:AM Magazine 6 February 2013

In The Savage Detectives, perhaps more than in the work of Vila-Matas and Bernhard, melancholy blossoms into a kind of promise. The disjunction between Modernism and the present, between Literature, capital ‘L’, and Politics, capital ‘P’, becomes utterly unbearable. For me, that unbearableness allows Literature to appear in its impossibility, as a kind of present absence, as a kind of disappearance, and along with it the vanished legacy of Modernism.

Impossible Literature

Lars Iyer, “Impossible Literature,” interview by Antônio Xerxenesky, 3:AM Magazine 6 February 2013

Andrew Gallix suggestively distinguishes between two kinds of belatedness. There is the belatedness already present in Don Quixote: the novel as a ‘fallen’ form, coming in the wake of older forms. And then, there is the romantic and Modern dream of the ‘Literary Absolute’, which expresses belatedness with respect to a total work of art — like Mallarmé’s conception of The Book, for example. Such belatedness, for me, holds in particular for those Modernist vanguards which sought in some way to link art to politics, which sought to change life, to change the world. As I argue in my manifesto, the conditions for such vanguards have vanished, and with them a whole dream of Literature, with a capital ‘L’.

After Literature

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

… For me, the truth about Montano’s sickness is that literature, what is called ‘literature’, has very little to do with our world. Something has happened. Something has come between us and the world of literature we admire. And that ‘something’ has to be acknowledged if literature is to avoid becoming a kind of repertoire routine, like The Nutcracker at Christmas.

… Much supposedly ambitious literary fiction seems to have similar characteristics. In attempting to distance itself from our marketized, neoliberalized, liberal-democratized world, it has become as stylized as bad high-fantasy. I want to read books that are commensurable with this world, in content and form, books that have abandoned a whole repertoire of literary gestures but which still, in some way, respond to what literature once was. I want to read books that make a problem of their inheritance, a problem of coming somehow after literature. I want to read books that register a sense of their own belatedness. … [F]or whatever reason, and we can speculate about this, it is not only a certain literary style, but literature itself, that is no longer believable.

Montano’s Malady is not a lament. It is not heavy-handed, like Austerlitz. It isn’t Solemn or Serious in a kitschy way. It is swift and light. It is funny. It belongs on our side of the great divide that separates us from figures like Kafka. But, for all that, Montano’s Malady does acknowledge this divide. It does negotiate its relationship with Modernism, with the past. It does situate itself with respect to Old Europe and the ‘narrative voice’ of Old Europe’s great writers. And it does all of this in the present, in our present.

… But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

Sometimes, I wonder whether my making claims of this kind is a result of my literary melancholy! Shouldn’t it be possible, if one only tried hard enough, to dream of a fabulously new novel to come, of a nouveau roman newer than the nouveaux romans of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, of an eternally nouveau nouveau roman which would always belong to the future? Mightn’t there be some fiery rebirth of the Modern in some faraway place, among writers who write new manifestos in the dream of restoring a revolutionary purity to their endeavours? But I can only say that it seems to me that literature has, in some fundamental way, run its course.

… But for me, for whom literary melancholy is not a merely personal issue but a condition of writing in our time (and this is why I admire what I have read of David Markson, who thoroughly understands this point), no novel, least of all Spurious, could be a nouveau roman, and much less a nouveau nouveau roman! My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.

The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.