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.


Like Conjuror’s Scarves

I have reviewed Lars Iyer‘s delightful Nietzsche and the Burbs for The Stinging Fly. You can read it here.

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’.

Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.


Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.


Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.