Not Really a Review of Spurious

Just a quick note to say it is both the funniest and most despairing thing I’ve read all year, and an attempt to sketch out why I found it even funnier and more despairing than the blog from which it developed. I think the difference in quality has something to do with the difference in form, with the sense of claustrophobic compression which defines the novel but which the blog just cannot generate. I won’t go over the narrative, such as it is, since various summaries already appear in good reviews at The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Instead I’ll pick up on a couple of the remarks John Self made when he read the novel in May:

[I]ts genesis [as a blog] shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot.

I agree with that, but what I took away from the movement of Lars and W. through these short, repetitive chapters was the polar opposite of what John Self took away from it:

[W.] is relentlessly critical of Lars. … But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.

I’m with Michael Schapira when he writes that “[t]he levels of depravity and viciousness that W. is able to reach through his assessment of Lars and himself truly merit the exalted categories of cosmic, transcendental, and messianic,” and I’m with him on that point because of how the relationship between Lars and W. is warped by the novel lacking the occasional and continually unfolding nature o the blog. The blog, rather than the novel, leaves me feeling as if I’m reading something closer to “an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.” With a brief post here, a long post there, sometimes weeks without any posts and then a few posts in quick succession, the blog suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you about something W. recently said.” Over time, then, the blog amounts to a piecemeal assemblage of W.’s character via Lars’ reports of the conversations he shares with W. The novel is the inverse. Running close to two hundred pages bound together between two covers, detailing a series of past events without a date stamp in sight, containing W.’s continual attacks against Lars in close proximity to one another, the novel suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you some things W. said about me when we were together a while ago.” The novel involves much more definition of Lars’ character by W., whose assessments of Lars are later recorded by Lars himself for reasons only Lars can know.

I don’t mean to deny or downplay the artistry behind the content of the blog; I only mean to suggest that with its occasional posts, date-stamped and dispersed across time, each one a minor piece of a massive project that could potentially last as long as the author lives, the form of the blog serves that content differently, and to my mind less successfully, than the form of the novel serves similar content. Corralling the occasional and dispersed content of the blog into a more concentrated form, the novel forces W. to evolve from a petulant buffoon into a monomaniacal tyrant. This evolution in turn forces Lars’ chronicling of W. to evolve from intermittent acts of reportage into a sustained act of fascinated supplication — and the utter inexplicability of that act is what makes Spurious so funny and so despairing at the same time.

Claire Keegan’s Foster

In expressing his admiration for [Claire Keegan’s] Foster, Richard Ford praised it as “a highwire act of uncommon narrative virtuosity.” It is exactly that. Poised delicately between the dual perils of wordlessness and verbose excess, the novella treads lightly along a tightrope towards disclosure of its central secret, as an understanding — an almost instinctual sympathy — develops between this man who declines to speak at length and the girl who narrates their story with an abundance of words. The result is a delicately articulated account of the aftermath of an unspeakable trauma in a dialect confined by inexperience and incomprehension. The balancing act, as Keegan performs it, is deft and assured without being audacious, a quiet attempt to give voice to painfully hidden memories without disturbing the silence that has settled upon them, and most impressive of all is that it culminates in the utterance of a single word — the last, perfect word of the book — which distils, into only two syllables, more meaning than could be conveyed as powerfully in a page-long soliloquy.

My review of Claire Keegan’s Foster is online at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Tom McCarthy’s C

[Tom] McCarthy’s new novel, C, is actually his third; but because he published his second novel, Men in Space, just before Zadie Smith drew attention to [his début] Remainder, C is the first to appear in the shadow of Remainder’s success. It must be said up front, though, that it is by comparison a disappointment. Whereas Remainder made a virtue of its obsessive austerity — “it works by accumulation and repetition,” wrote Smith, “closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event” — C plays fast and loose: it is elaborate and extravagant and continually expanding in scope from the first word to the very last. That said, however, this too must be clear: if C disappoints when compared to Remainder, it is, like Remainder, a triumph when compared to the pedestrian novels that continue to dominate our literary landscape.

My review of Tom McCarthy’s C is online at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.