By Simon Demetriou
If you’ve ever traded pretentious philosobabble across a sticky table in a dingy university bar, you are likely to be familiar with the way in which people willingly trapped in the bubble of academia seek to give themselves substance and identity through conversations whose component parts are constantly shifting quantities of pretentious nonsense, foggy insight, and auto-eroticism. Perhaps you look back at such conversations with a combination of nostalgia and embarrassment. If so, you might find Lars Iyer’s sixth novel as marvellously tender and comic as this reader did.
At a fictionalised version of Manchester Metropolitan University (where Lars Iyer studied Philosophy), continental philosophy has been rebranded ‘Disaster Studies’ (another nod to Iyer’s former day job as a Philosophy lecturer, since his most significant academic publications are on Maurice Blanchot, whose The Writing of the Disaster is ‘the foundational text of Disaster Studies’). Under this new, faux-trendy umbrella shelter a bunch of PhD students who have been allowed a lengthy reprieve from the real world they fear and loathe thanks to miraculously awarded scholarships.
Johnny, our narrator, dwells repeatedly on his loathing of the moon and the omnipresence of evil in the world; Marcie, whose bookshelves contain an impressive selection of texts on ‘wank metaphysics’, is writing on ‘Lumpenproletariat revolt as ultra-politics’ and is distinctly unimpressed by the appearance of an ‘authentic Derrida testicle’ in a jar at a Disaster Studies PhD party. After all, ‘No one reads Derrida anymore. Now, if it was a Deleuze bollock, that would be different…’ Others are obsessed with ritual suicide or the production of films condemned by their peers as ‘pure artwank’. Dropped into this comically pretentious bunch is Simone Weil. Not the philosopher-saint, but, well, sort of the philosopher saint.
This Simone Weil is a mysterious student who has legally changed her name to that of her role-model, and who sets out to enact the original’s commitment to affliction by entering the world of Manchester’s afflicted, with both miraculous and awful results. Her presence fascinates the others, particularly Johnny, despite her absence from most of the pages of the novel (presumably a play on the significance of absence within Weil’s philosophy), and finally pushes the novel to its surreal and not wholly convincing conclusion.
The magic of the book is its dialogue, and Iyer’s capacity to craft characters who would be utterly insufferable, if they weren’t so immediately relatable. Not much actually happens, but for the most part it doesn’t matter because the non-events are both bitingly funny and sensitively touching. (There is a chance that only pretentious humanities graduates will feel this way, so if you read the book and find it simply insufferable, sorry – but you’re missing out!)