06/08/2012 05:24 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

His Own Harshest Critic

Lars Iyer's novel Spurious, published by Melville House, is composed primarily of vignettes and snippets of conversation between our conversationally masochistic narrator and his highly critical friend. Topics of discussion between them include, but are not limited to: existentialism, concern for the inevitable apocalypse, one's own inadequacy, poor lifestyle habits, Polish alcoholism and the quality of life in Canada. Between these conversations, which are held in vague settings that are largely devoid of any particular environment or urgent sense of time, the narrator turns his attention to an almost cataclysmic and very mysterious mold -- or, "damp," as this is a British novel -- spreading throughout his apartment -- excuse me, "flat" -- with no solution as to how to stop the damn thing. But that's fine, because the narrator is quite fascinated by it all. He's a philosopher, you know, and is easily entertained.

The narrator shares the author's name, Lars, and his friend is referred to only by a mysterious initial, W. But while W's identity is kept vague, we get a clear sense of who he is, how he thinks, and what his priorities are -- which, oddly enough for a novel with a first-person narrator, we hardly get from Lars. This is because the conversations between the two are mostly one-sided, with W telling Lars -- thereby telling the reader -- what Lars is like, with accusations and suppositions that Lars simply recounts for the reader without ever making any attempt to defend himself. Lars imprints himself onto the pages with W's zingers verbatim; he defines himself through the other's words -- or at least through his reticence to contribute words of his own.

Spurious is a novel employing a uniquely voiceless narrator, and if one wants to become truly philosophical he or she may wonder if Lars, or rather W, truly exists; if Lars is the product of astute philosopher W's thought experiment, or if W may actually be an externalized conscious of a compulsively self-criticizing individual -- or some combination of the two:

'So what have you got in your rucksack?', W. asks. 'Go on, show me, I could do with a laugh'. I take out another gossip magazine, and then another. He gasps in horror. -'My God, there's no hope for you'.

I found that insult by opening to a page at random; the book is full of them. But:

'When did you know you were a failure?', W. repeatedly asks me.

'When was it you knew you'd never have a single thought of your own -- not one'?

He asks me these questions, W. says, because he's constantly posing them to himself.

It all reads rather similarly to Wilhelm Reich's Listen, Little Man!, in which the author writes a sort of pep talk to the ignorant and lowly reader with a heavy dose of tough love: "Don't run," he writes, after talking the reader down. "Have the courage to look at yourself!" Lars' silence in response to W's feels like compliance to his judgments, and acceptance for what W says about him. Like the reader of any novel, Lars cannot actively "fight back" -- he simply thinks these little thoughts to himself, records things.

The reader, then, may feel on trial. In Lars' absence to comment, what shields the reader from W's criticisms? I felt awfully guilty throughout my experience reading Spurious -- or rather, my experience trying not to read it. When I was compelled to drop the book to play a videogame, to refresh Twitter or waterfall down my Facebook newsfeed, W's words to Lars echoed in my head: "I haven't seen you open a book for days," he says right there to me on page 52. And he's right: despite my interests in literature, in reading and creating it, I make any excuse to avoid it all to do something else instead, something easier.

Spurious seems committed to solving that crisis, the paradox of one who has committed his life to thinking, to understanding, but on any given day would rather play Doom on his cellphone (that's what Lars was busy with instead of reading), who is his own harshest critic and who believes he will never amount to anything. It's a bleak and dreary outlook, but when our interactions with others are increasingly taking place in the virtual world -- in which everyone puts forward their best front, broadcasts the juicy and glamorous bits of an otherwise mundane and usually trivial existence -- it's easy to feel like everyone's got things going for them when you do not. It's a dangerous way to think, but it's certainly something we all struggle with at some point in our lives -- or at least when you're half-way through Spurious.

But it's not all doom and gloom in Spurious, which despite its throes of self-doubt is brimming with sitcom-style humor. And it becomes apparent that Lars and W have a friendship that some of us spend our lives looking for:

'If you're working class, like us,' says W., 'you show your affection by verbal abuse. That's why I abuse you -- verbally, I mean. It's a sign of love.'

This piece was originally published at the Donnybrook Writing Academy.