“W. reminds me of the Hasidic lesson Scholem recounts towards the end of his great study of Jewish mysticism,” says Lars, the narrator of Spurious, late in the book. W., Lars’s unnamed friend, goes on to retell Scholem’s story of the four Rabbis: The first goes to the woods, builds a fire, meditates, prays, and the difficult task he hopes to achieve is accomplished. Three more Rabbis follow, but, with each passing generation, knowledge of the first Rabbi’s ways is gradually lost: first, how to light the fire, then how to say the prayers, and, finally, which spot to visit in the woods. The last Rabbi says, in Iyer’s words, “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.” W. moves Scholem’s story one generation further: “There was a fifth rabbi Scholem forgot—well, he wasn’t really a rabbi, says W. His name is Lars, about whom all too much is known. He forgot where the woods were, and that he even had a task.… He set fire to himself and his friend W. with his matches and the woods were burned to the ground. And then the whole world caught fire, the oceans boiled and the sky burned away and it was the end of days.”
Iyer’s twist on Scholem’s parable is a perfect microcosm of his debut novel: a humorous, devastated tale of obsession with philosophy, one that engenders the feeling that the moment for serious thinking has long since passed. Scholem details the gradual attenuation of a type of knowledge for which we might nevertheless find a sufficient substitute in storytelling. Iyer’s novel is about the attenuation of knowledge without recompense. In that sense, it’s about the apocalypse.
The dread in Spurious has something in common with the novels of Thomas Bernhard, though it’s funnier dread. Mostly, Lars just parrots his own cosmic inadequacy, as pointed out to him by W.: “As we look out to sea, a great shadow seems to move under the water. He can see it, says W.—‘Look: the kraken of your idiocy.’” W. and Lars are like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, if Vladimir were the most withering member of Estragon’s tenure committee.
The two friends, beaten-down professors of higher education, are stuck in the academic hamster-wheel: making conference presentations, wheedling grants, and publishing unreadable books full of typos and misprints that nobody will read anyway. Still, they read Jewish mystics and wait for their own Messiah, a Kafka to whom they could attach themselves as Max Brods, whose works they can publish “piece by piece for a grateful humanity, with our stupid editorial comments that generations of scholars would read to one another in disgust and amusement.” Midway through the novel, Lars discovers that a damp mold has begun to eat through his plaster walls, shorting out his electricity—one more sign of the apocalypse of damp, pervading stupidity. He spends the novel searching for illumination, only to find he can’t keep the lights on in his own house.
True to its interest in Messianism and Jewish mysticism, Spurious is, finally, a book about waiting. W. and Lars wait, as Beckett’s characters do, as Kafka’s do. It might also be a book about salvation, about joy—unless salvation is impossible, and joy another symptom of
idiocy. This novel has a seductive way of always doubling back on itself, scorching the earth but extracting its own strange brand of laughter from its commitment to despair. In time, a sixth Rabbi might read it and believe there is something left for us to know, stories for us to tell, even after the world has burned.