Like a lot of my favorite books, I bought Spurious by Lars Iyer partially due to the cover design – two plastic bags hovering provocatively on the edge of a parking lot (Melville House can really do a good book cover). But, like with all of my favorite books, what was inside the book changed my life. This book (and the rest of the Spurious Trilogy – Exodus and Dogma) oozed a sticky, refreshing style that completely shook me. I quickly became obsessed – with the culmination of the staccato chapters, with the overbearing third-person presence of the shit-talking W., with the unending push behind every idea that propels every image to its bleak, (il)logical extensions. I also loved this book for the unique central characters and their obsessions – two academics in philosophy who acknowledge that “the corpse of the university floats face down in the water”, who are also then “poking it with sticks,” and, of course, who talk unendingly about Kafka and Joy Division.
Iyer has since moved onto his second trilogy, and Nietzsche and the Burbs, its second installment, is a propulsive, invigorating read. While 2016’s snappy Wittgenstein Jr revolves around a party-til-we-die cohort of university students who obsess over their despairing philosophy professor, Nietzsche and the Burbs is an extended study of present-day high school students obsessing over what you’d expect present-day high school students to obsess over: sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and – of course –nihilism. I’m struck by how rivetingly contemporary the freak-and-geek cast we follow through their final few weeks of high school is – they are both classically misfit in the 80s cinema sense and yet refreshingly modern. Imagine The Breakfast Club but with the Simple Minds and Wang Chung soundtrack replaced with the droney doom of Earth and Sleep, with the jock not just being a kind of an ok dude but also coming out of the closet and (spoilers?) maybe even joining an electro-pop band, with the popular girls dealing with cancer in the family by dropping acid, with the Cold War nuclear-thread ennui supplanted by global climate catastrophe and full oligarchic manipulation of the stock market. It’s universal, it’s nostalgic, but it’s also now.
In a general sense, I like it because it’s a book about how we’re living in a bleak, fucked up time. And the rapid proliferation of information, media, and extended social relationships that the information age has afforded us isn’t doing much to ameliorate this. If anything, it makes stuff worse – Nietzsche and the Burbs time and time again denies us the simplistic categorization of person and place and profession that we were maybe accustomed to in iterations past. How can a geek consider a preppy kid their enemy when both know full-well that they’re graduating into an exploitative job market? When they both know they’ll have to depend on a doomed ecosystem? When they have to be a part of a failed species?
This book also explores the idea of living in a post-existentialism world, which resonates with me a lot. How can we grapple with meaninglessness when grappling with meaninglessness has already been done? How can we be nihilists when your friend’s office-worker dad has multiple degrees in the study of nihilism? Not only must we grapple with the sense that everything has already been done, but we must grapple with the sense that everyone has already grappled with the sense that everything has already been done. I love how Iyer lulls us in with the easy platitudes of despair only to confront us with an ever-baser despair in this book. But I also love how he shows us that our optimism is often unintentional, that it generally lives inside us, that we are often forced to both recognize our own doom and yet feel compelled to challenge ourselves in our own understanding of that doom. It’s like we’re all depressed psychologists, like we’re destined to find meaning in the study of meaninglessness.
These are all high-level themes and ideas woven into Iyer’s story that made it a compelling read for me. But on a more primal, simple level, I also love playing music, and I especially love when a work of fiction spends time diving into this experience of playing music. Playing in a shitty rock band with your friends is an established national pasttime for many of us. Composing music as part of a group, playing it, inventing it, expressing yourself as part of a group, responding to your friends’ expression of self in this live, living, breathing moment is deeply personal and transportive. Rarely do I find a piece of writing that can express this personal experience so thoroughly and evocatively, and so I am delighted to report that the slow narrative arc that propels us through Nietzsche and the Burbs hinges on these very moments. I’m also delighted to report that these moments are found in the performance of droney doom metal. So that’s a huge plus in my book, and for me expresses an authenticity in motivation and purpose – Iyer could have written platitudes about a punk band looking cool in a parking lot in New York City, and maybe that would have had broader appeal, or something. But it wouldn’t have the heart behind it, because Iyer is so deep into bleak music and existentialism that he can’t not write about it.
This intersection of interests, style, and obsession spoke to me, and this long introduction is all to say I got it in my head to talk to Lars Iyer about Nietzsche and the Burbs. It’s new – it just came out [https://www.mhpbooks.com/books/nietzsche-and-the-burbs/] – and so when’s a better time to talk about it? And I wanted to talk with Iyer about this emphasis on nihilism, the relationship between philosophy and art, and how his personal experiences came to coalesce into such a strikingly specific work. Thankfully for me, and for you, dear reader, Iyer agreed to a few rounds of email back and forth, and like a true academic, he even included extensive citations. What follows is me completely making a fool of myself in conversation with probably the smartest and most educated person I’ve ever talked to. I loved every minute of it, and I hope you enjoy reading it as well.
In your previous work, Joy Division is a particular focal point, specifically the circumstances regarding Ian Curtis’s suicide. I don’t want to spoil anything, but in Nietzsche and the Burbs, the character of Nietzsche, as he performs with the band, definitely echoes Curtis’ iconic stage presence. Tell me about your relationship with Joy Division – did you go into writing Nietzsche and the Burbs wanting to explore this imagery, or was that something that came later?
I am, and almost always was, a music fan, a music lover. Back when I was a teenager, music felt for us, was ecstatic for us, was violent for us, was spiritual for us. We listened to music to discover a way of not feeling dead.
Manchester bands like Joy Division, the early Fall, the early New Order, and the early Smiths conjured up an imaginary North for me, the opposite of the prosperous southern suburbs where I grew up, and which I write about in Nietzsche and the Burbs. There was still left politics in the North instead of triumphal Thatcherism, still wry, dark humour instead of bland positivity, still modernism refracted through a prole art threat, instead of dreary old middle-class, middlebrow, modernism-allergic culture.
No accident that I moved to Manchester to study, leaving the South behind. I’d take solo Sebaldian walks round what is now called the Northern Quarter, with its abandoned warehouses, trees growing from the roofs. I’d walk canal towpaths at night. That Manchester, with its regeneration in the late ‘90s and its new skyscrapers, has been disappearing ever since…
Mark Fisher finds a posthumousness to Ian Curtis – ‘the sense that you are listening to someone who is already dead.’ Here’s Dominic Fox in Militant Disphoria: ‘The world is dead, and life appears within it as an irrational persistence, an unsupportable excrescence’. This captures, for me, Ian Curtis’s depression, his nihilism.
Nietzsche, the central character of Nietzsche and the Burbs, also knows a kind of death-in-life, this nihilism, as does Wittgenstein in my previous novel (and perhaps Lars in the Spurious Trilogy, too). My Wittgenstein dreamt of overcoming nihilism via a passage beyond philosophy, beyond thinking. My Nietzsche seeks to do so through his studies of the suburbs which, he hopes, will lead him to an affirmatory, salvific act. His friends, in turn, seek to leap beyond nihilism by making him the vocalist and frontman of their band (it’s always unclear how invested Nietzsche is in this role)…
This Nietzsche and his cohort are high school students on the cusp of a working life, of a stint at university. As a professor, do you see this kind of nihilism in today’s students? Do you think things are changing, are kids today suffering through the same kind of melancholia, or something different?
The young people of the shrinking middle-class have an overriding sense of both having to play the game, do what’s required, get on in life, etc., and, at the same time, of the futility of it all. On the one hand, the anxieties of trying to get on in the ‘burnout society’ Byung Chul-Han describes; on the other, a depressive certainty that none of it matters.
Is nihilism a name for this melancholia? The word is usually understood to mean the loss of foundational sources of meaning and value in the world, which brings with it a sense of meaninglessness that underlies our experience and is constantly waiting to break out.
Dullness, conformity, routine, the reign of positivity: that’s what frustrate the teens of my novel. They see through the hypocrisy of the adults around them. They won’t be satisfied making the ‘suburban adjustment’ that would allow them to embrace their parents’ lifestyle.
Wasn’t it ever thus?, a critic might respond. Haven’t teens always been discontent? In response, I’d point to the levels of debt graduates are burdened by, to the difficulty of affording somewhere to live, of moving out from your parents’ house. I’d point to the climate crisis and the failure of our politicians to address it, as well as the signs of impending financial catastrophe.
We all know this civilization is over, MacKenzie Wark likes to say. But only the young, who have few stakes in the system, can admit this, feel it.
For me, it’s this lack of satisfaction with the values of civilization that makes my teen characters more than nihilists: anti-nihilists. The real nihilists are the happily adjusted suburbanites around them who simply accept their lot.
The true sign of a contemporary nihilist is an unwarranted positivity in the face of all that is wrong with the world. How can everyone be so uncritically happy in the face of the climate crisis and of impending financial catastrophe?
The question my characters try to answer is how they might become worthy of our feelings of doubt, how they can act upon their anxieties, their dysphoria, in a manner that answers what they reveal.
The Nietzsche of my novel quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno: ‘Thought honours itself by defending what is damned as nihilism.’ Thought honours itself by defending dark music, dark philosophy, black humour and by promoting friendships that place these supposed negativities at their centre. Such is the anti-nihilistic friendship between the characters in Nietzsche and the Burbs, who don’t want to live the lives they should want…
Regarding dark music specifically, I’m a fan of doom metal (and I’ve talked about doom metal in my previous interview with author Sam Pink), so I was excited to see the band Sleep play a central role in some of the personal philosophies presented in Nietzsche and the Burbs (not to mention the less doomy but still fan favorites Earth, My Bloody Valentine, and others). Are you a big fan of doom metal, or was this more of a research project for you, and, regardless, do you have any deep cut recommendations?
I love drone music in all its forms, and hearing Earth II was a revelation. This was the sound of chaos – that primordial chaos that a certain tradition of rabbinical commentary on the Bible argues is more ontologically fundamental to the created order. ‘The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep’, says the book of Genesis. ‘Without form and void’ render the Hebrew tohu wa’bohu; ‘formless waste’ or ‘chaos primeval’ are other translations. This formlessness, this void, returns at several points in the Bible: in Noah’s flood, in Jeremiah’s prophetic testimony to the first destruction of the Temple… And it’s what I hear in Earth II: a storm of meaninglessness, the reality of evil, horrible and fascinating…
I would (perhaps speciously) contrast Sunn 0))) to Earth. Is it their effects pedals, or the way they set up their amps, but they sound warmer to me. Their music is more womb-like, more comforting, more enclosing. A dwelling in the chaos. A place to lie down. No surprise they printed Aliza Shvart’s essay that made a claim for the femininity of their music as the sleevenotes to Kannon.
Sleep are closer to conventional Sabbath-influenced metal, and nothing wrong with that. The spiritual trajectory of members and former members is fascinating: Jason Marler (an important figure in my novel) converts to Russian Orthodoxy and heads off towards that monastery in Alaska; the members of Om put icons on their album covers. The bong voyage leads, unexpectedly, beyond the death of God…
A recommendation: not a deep cut, but the triumphantly feminine ‘Alice.’ from Monoliths and Dimensions, is lovely: ‘life metal’ indeed.
Are you a (drone) musician yourself? What’s your own experience with channelling chaos? Do you see your writing as attempting something similar?
Would that I were a musician! Every morning at the moment, I get up very early and listen to a concert from John Coltrane’s European concert tour of 1962. What it would be to blow like Coltrane …
Alas, I have to work with words instead, even if try to make my words musical. ‘I’d say that it’s a question of rhythm and has a lot to do with music. Indeed, you can understand what I write only if you realize that the musical component is of uppermost importance, and that what I’m writing about only comes in secondarily’: that’s what Thomas Bernhard explains to an interviewer. I understand what he means.
The music of language is paramount for me. Language can operate to fix and order the world, but it can also be used to upset that order, to convey chaos, the formless void. God uses language when he creates the world. ‘Let there be light’, he says. But there’s also a way in which the music of language can give darkness its head. Let there be darkness …
‘The death of God is greater and more divine than God’ writes Georges Bataille. It’s a death he tries to undergo by way of his writing during the war years: On Nietzsche and the rest. A paradoxical practice, using language against language, emphasising disorder, incompletion, interruption, the fragmentary …
I spent years trying to write that kind of writing, to practice it, like a musician. It was my equivalent to blowing like Coltrane. The novels I write now are at a remove from that, but I hope their musicality can still convey my fascination with ‘chaos primeval’.
I think this musicality is definitely there, especially in the voice and pacing. Like with Bernhard and others, you have this rhythm that carries the work forward, filling in the spaces between plot and development, but the plot itself is also propulsive in its own way – I love how the reader is challenged by the protagonists in Nietzsche and the Burbs as the story progresses. We are set up to sympathize with them and their gloomy outlook in the face of corrupt governments, unbridled capitalism, and global catastrophe, but as the supporting cast is more fleshed out and vocally critical of them throughout the book, our sympathy is, rightfully, challenged. Do you consider teenage gloominess a selfish act in the face of climate disaster and runaway exploitation of labor and natural resources? Are we taking on abstract suffering to fill the void that a safe and suburban first-world life affords us?
The teens of my novel know, really know, that this civilization is over. They don’t have jobs, don’t have rent to pay, they’re not yet debt-slaves, which means they have a capacity for doubt that adults can’t allow themselves.
The danger, my characters know, is that doubt is captured by the medical-pharmacological establishment industry and medicated away. Sure, there are real and terrible cases of mental illness who need appropriate medical treatment. But there are righteous forms of mental dysphoria among the young.
We live in the ‘desert world’, in ‘desert life’, Hannah Arendt tells us, for as long as we can see no way to act to change it. For as long, that is, as we do not enjoy meaningful political engagement. This means we mustn’t be deluded by that ‘desert psychology’ which seeks to adjust us to our conditions. We mustn’t give in to a desert nihilism which has forgotten what it is to believe and what it is to fight.
The Climate Emergency movement, in which so many teens and young people have been involved, offers us another vision, and not only for the safe and suburban parts of the first world. Teen dysphoria doesn’t have to be selfish or abstract so long as it discovers an appropriate correlate.
I’m happy to hear this optimism in spite of such darkness, and I feel similarly. It’s interesting to me how we can divide our thoughts and our thoughts on thoughts, the difference between philosophy and philosophy as a topic. We’ve talked a little bit previously about Wittgenstein, in that your previous book, Wittgenstein Jr, was primarily influenced by his personal correspondence instead of his actual work in philosophy. Is this also true for Nietzsche and Nietzsche and the Burbs? And, further, where do you draw the line between philosophy and philosopher?
I encountered snippets of Wittgenstein’s private notebooks and correspondence in biographies by Ray Monk and Brian McGuinness. Clipped, profound, beautiful, with their own special music. There’s more in that style in Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value. I got caught up in the rhythms of Wittgenstein’s style and some aspects of his thought and wrote Wittgenstein Jr…
Nietzsche’s written style is among the most seductive and beautiful in all philosophy. Too seductive. He wrote for ‘free spirits’, for men and women of the ‘higher’ kind who would recognise his thought and take it further.
And here, we have to be careful. We assume too quickly that we are ‘free spirits’, and flattered into accepting some disturbing views. Don’t read Nietzsche like a victor, Malcolm Bull suggests. Read him as a loser. Test his thought. Perhaps we’re of weak kind rather than the strong ‘higher’ kinds Nietzsche seeks. If so, what does this mean?
The music of Nietzsche’s writing can be grandiose. Turn to his letters, and we find something else, a tone quite different from what E.M. Cioran calls the ‘unspeakable melodrama’ of his philosophical work. ‘When one reads the letters he wrote at the same time, one sees that he’s lamentable, it’s very touching, like a character out of Chekhov’, Cioran writes. I think he’s right. Nietzsche’s the philosopher of the will to power, but he’s also a ‘pitiful invalid’: that’s what his letters show. (I give this view to Paula in the novel.)
My Nietzsche is more like this letter-writer than anything else. His faith in his work is more intermittent. He’s vulnerable, for all that he’s capable of lofty rhetoric. He’s pitifully dependent on his mother and sister. He speaks blankly, plainly. He’s more crushed, more overwhelmed by the world …
The line between philosopher and philosophy: a vast question. For the ancient thinkers, philosophy is manifested in your life, your spiritual life. You embody what you think; you live it. The various schools of Greek thought are testament to this. It’s only later that the separation of philosopher and philosophy began – the possibility of what Michel Serres calls ‘hypocritical theory.’
The ad hominem fallacy warns us not to confuse the work with the philosopher (which is fortunate for Heidegger, Frege and others!) But both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche have something of the ancient tradition of the philosopher about them, which is why their lives are nearly as fascinating as their work.
Speaking of which, you started out working purely in philosophy, then later moved toward creative writing, at least in your day job. Where do you draw the line between philosophy and philosopher for yourself? How much are you exploring your own sense of being crushed, of being overwhelmed, when writing the voice of this suburban Nietzsche?
My interest in Bataille’s writing practice took me to the work of his friend and contemporary, Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot shows how literary writing questions basic notions of personhood, of identity, and inwardness; that it constitutes a form of research in its own right, refusing mastery, order and established authority.
Blanchot’s writing is very difficult, and I did a PhD in philosophy as an attempt to understand its theoretical background in phenomenology. I began an academic career.
All along I was writing ‘creatively’, or at least non-academically. This led me to my experiments at my blog, Spurious, from 2003-2007, in which I tried to bring together theory and practice, to develop a mode of writing as a kind of thinking that took place alongside philosophy.
But I had a profound sense of the comedy of my endeavour. Who was interested in such endeavours anymore? In what way was I entitled or equipped to write about figures like Blanchot? What relationship could I possibly have to these old European ideas, rooted as they were in such a vastly different intellectual context? What did any of it matter anyway with the threat of climatic and financial collapse?
This sense of comedy, absurdity and imposture led to the adventures of W. and Lars on my blog, then to the Spurious trilogy, and now to my Philosophers trilogy, of which Nietzsche and the Burbs is the second part.
These are comic novels, all of them. I hope they’re fun. But they are also my attempt to reflect on how philosophy might be manifested in our lives in a time that’s largely indifferent to intellectual thought in the humanities.
Lars Iyer is the author of several novels, most recently Nietzsche and the Burbs. He lives and teaches creative writing in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.
Zac Smith is the author of 50 Barn Poems (Clash Books, 2019). He’s interviewed authors all over the internet, and his stories and poems have appeared on many cool websites. He lives in Boston, where he likes to walk his dogs.