“Wanting to think is one thing; having a talent for thinking another.” Thus Wittgenstein in 1944. There are myriad material reasons for the uneasy feeling permeating the past few decades, but one that deserves more attention is the observation that fewer and fewer seem to want to experience this Wittgensteinian sense of longing. In his first trilogy Lars Iyer rewrote the campus novel for the neoliberal age. With the beasts of “excellence” and “strategic action plans” stalking the department halls, any association with thinking is a dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, like a resistance cell that’s long been separated from their comrades and don’t know the battle is over, our heroes Lars and W. (two philosophy professors) persist in their quest to bring a real thinker into their midst. Knowing that thinking has long fled Britain, their target is Europe, and in particular the Europe that produces the modern founts of oracular wisdom — Wittgenstein of Culture and Value, Ciorin, Blanchot, Simone Weil, and of course Nietzsche.
In the second book of his second trilogy Iyer has invited this most uncanny guest across the Channel and into Wokingham, a typically nihilistic British suburb. There is something deeply funny and deeply scandalous about this conceit, and one is reminded of a moment in a Sebald’s Rings of Saturn where the main character buys a carton of chips at McDonalds and “felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter.”
If his first trilogy reimagined the campus novel, the current trilogy is brilliantly reworking the John Hughes coming of age story. (Wittgenstein Jr. is the first novel in the trilogy and the third will involve Simone Weil.) Nietzsche and the Burbs follows a set of students dealing with the personal crisis of the end of high school and the global crisis of economic, ecological, and spiritual collapse. They navigate such crises with the typical resources of music (the title of the book is also the name of a group they form), drugs, dancing, and taking digs at one another lest one get too comfortable. But they also have the atypical figure of a recent transfer, someone who seems to have a talent for thinking whom they come to call Nietzsche. As with all of his novels, Iyer beautifully balances the profound and the ridiculous and provides a comic vision so well suited to the present moment.
Michael Schapira: What is your relationship to the real Wokingham? For non-British people, what is unique to the British suburb?
Lars Iyer: There’s nothing particularly unique to Wokingham, I think, and that’s the point. It’s like any prosperous suburb thirty miles or so from a major city and close to an international airport, to hi-tech clusters and a tech-focused business base. It could stand in for innumerable well-heeled, well-connected suburbs all over the world.
There are supposedly good schools, good nurseries, good transport links. House prices are buoyant, which is to say, exorbitant. It has character, as estate agents would say; it has period charm. The town centre: timber-framed cottages; the old police station with its spire; Broad Street, as wide as a marketplace, with its wide-fronted townhouses; the imposing town hall with its archways and patterned brick which brings the streets together, giving the town a centre of gravity.
But the centre’s an island in a suburban sea. The housing estates are spreading, more cramped and crowded than ever. Wokingham’s lost its old boundaries. It’s merged with everywhere else …
Most Wokinghamites are blow-ins. They didn’t grow up here; nor did their parents. Their grandparents weren’t buried in the churchyards. The newcomers aren’t nostalgic for Wokingham past, and don’t know much about it. Who remembers the open grassland in the town centre, or the old art deco swimming pool demolished for housing? There used to be a football stadium. The town cricket pitch only went a few years ago. A golf course sprawls in what were once open fields and farmland behind Inchcape garage.
I used to hunt out old postcards, and read small press books on local history. Photos of stolid types, respectable types – merchants and railwaymen. Photos of floats in the old parades in the streets. I’d wonder whether there was once a common Wokingham bearing. A Wokingham accent. Were old Wokinghamites a kind of people, and if so, what kind?
The town’s been around for more than a thousand years, but it lifted itself free of history decades ago. It headed off into orbit like most of the southeast. It’s a node, nothing else. It’s part of the knowledge economy spine, the innovation engine, that runs through the Thames Valley.
The planners have made the most of its superb strategic location – of the great logistical corridors that run along the M4 and A329(M) to Reading, Bracknell and beyond. The multinationals have taken root; tech companies thrive, along with the financial and business services firms, the pharma-bio industries, the great retail firms …
So there’s a huge demand for highly educated workers, a brain economy of software engineers, telecoms people, commercial staff. Housing estates are solutions to the growth-zone problem, the family-friendly problem and the easy-commute problem … The new houses aren’t exciting – but they don’t need to be. No one’s planning to stay in Wokingham forever.
So the new housing estates spread. The suburbs close up all the gaps, constituting a closed circuit, a complete reality. Total management is all. The last surviving woodland is a carefully maintained leisure resource, trimmed back, meticulously pathed and signposted. Rest for the workers. Countryside vistas for retirees. A place for teenagers to have outdoor fun.
Wokingham doesn’t gild the lily. It doesn’t pretend to be other than it is: a pragmatic town, a busy town, where there’s money to be made and business to be done. Wokingham’s content to be what it is. Its traffic jams are like traffic jams anywhere. Its shops are the usual ones. The town reminds you of every other town in the southeast of England, and it’s fine with that.
No one of any importance has ever come from Wokingham. No artist, no scientist, no philosopher. No person of culture. No great mind has ever been formed here. There are no great Wokingham works of the spirit, and none are expected.
My relationship to the suburbs? We moved out to Wokingham when the motorway reached it in the late ‘70s, just as it was about to boom. I escaped to university, and then, after a couple of years back in the suburbs, escaped again.
Ballard famously wrote from his suburban perch in Shepperton. In the book Nietzsche’s project is to philosophize the suburbs. I’ve always left our conversations with a great reading list. Is there a literature or philosophy of the suburbs that you would want to commend?
The suburbs come up in social theory quite often, as Rohan Quimby’s Time and the Suburbs reminds us.
Lefebvre’s reflections on everyday life are paradigm-setting, in which he seeks to make ordinary, unexceptional experience the object of critical reflection. The everyday is to become much more than a disregarded, unarticulated backdrop to significant activity. It’s to be historicized, and approached by way of larger social, political and economic analyses. And it’s to be subject to a more general Marxist critique, the aim of which is to articulate a common horizon of experience, which might lead to a renewal of the public sphere of life, a re-engagement with politics.
It’s as part of these reflections that Lefebvre provides a phenomenology of life in the new commuter towns of the ‘50s, claiming they embody everyday life ‘in its chemically pure state’. What does he find in these new suburbs? No more public life, a retreat indoors, depoliticization.
This presages life in the contemporary middle-class suburbs. Street life has long disappeared. Generations of children are used to playing indoors; scheduled playdates and organised classes replace unplanned encounters. Adults are busy inside too, working on screens, watching screens. Friendships are much more elective now; they don’t arise out of dependency on neighbours.
There’s a convergence of lifestyles in the middle-class suburbs. Everyone, no matter what their origins, seems to become alike. If there are deviations – eccentricities, idiosyncrasies – they are permitted ones. There’s a way to be fun, wacky, surprising and so on. There’s a way to be diverse.
Life – what passes for suburban life – is paranoiacally managed by the middle-class. Nothing is allowed to happen. There’s no spontaneity. It’s as though people no longer lived directly, but through abstractions, representations. Words like family, house, play, friend, have been hollowed out. They’re keywords, endlessly circulating without offering much more than a parody of meaning.
No surprise that despair and anxiety have spread everywhere, and particularly among the young. Dissociation is rife. A kind of numbness. Bernard Stiegler claims that we’re living through the ‘apocalypse of nihilism’: that the nihilism that the real Nietzsche diagnosed has only now revealed itself in our ordinary lives. This is a view shared by my character Nietzsche, who undertakes a phenomenology of suburban life in a manner very different to Lefebvre.
I am indebted to Maurice Blanchot’s appreciative yet dissenting essay of Lefebvre’s work in my account of Nietzsche’s investigations. For Blanchot, the importance of the everyday (especially, for my purposes, the suburbs) lies in its very lack of definition and specificity, in the insignificance of its events. To the everyday there belongs a ‘power of dissolution’ of larger structures; ‘the everyday breaks down structures and undoes forms’.
My Nietzsche attends to exactly this indefiniteness, this insignificance, in his account of suburban life. Like Lefebvre, he aims to transform the suburbs; but unlike him, he’s no Marxist or critical theorist and it’s unclear whether the aesthetic act of redemption he hopes for has any collective significance. Nonetheless, Wokingham, an ordinary suburban town with its housing estates and leisure facilities, is, for my Nietzsche, the arena in which the overcoming of nihilism might be decided.
This book is much longer, relatively speaking, than Wittgenstein Jr. and those in the Spurious trilogy. With one trilogy under your belt, are you conceiving of what you want to accomplish in each part different this time around?
My characters W. and Lars in the Spurious trilogy are fascinated by continental Europe and its culture. They visit Germany and France, and recall an earlier visit to Poland, but still feel Europe’s ‘over there’, away from them.
This fascination remains in my new trilogy, but I bring old Europeans to the UK, reincarnating them in banal settings. Whereas W. and Lars look for a leader, a thinker who embodies all the virtues of old, philosophical Europe, the young people of my last two novels have found them in Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. My new novel-sequence explores what following serious philosophers in the present might mean.
Yes, Nietzsche and the Burbs is relatively long. I once conceived it as the centrepiece of a triptych, with Wittgenstein Jr and my projected Simone Weil novel as outer panels. I thought the Spurious trilogy would run up to the triptych, and another trilogy of short novels would run out of it. However, I think my Simone Weil novel will turn out to be just as long as Nietzsche and the Burbs …
One thing that immediately drew me into the Spurious trilogy – aside from the fact that I was absolutely miserable in graduate school and your depiction of the ruins of the neoliberal university was like therapy – is the way you work with theme and plot. The plot is very loose, but certain motifs carry the books forward, and something like a texture or language is established (like when directors have the crew watch other films to set up visual and thematic coordinates). What links Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Weil is an enduring fascination with their biographies. In a sense the biographies provide the plot. But their concepts can also provide something to work towards (for example Nietzsche’s report on the suburbs, which references eternal return). How are you thinking about plot in this trilogy, especially in relation to biographies and philosophical concepts?
You once compared the Spurious trilogy to modal jazz, and I liked the comparison, not least because I love modal music of all kinds! Modal jazz isn’t played over complex chord changes. Steve Reich, commenting on Coltrane’s Africa/Brass: ‘‘”What’s the changes, man?” “E”. “Then what?” “E!” E, for half an hour!’
That was enormously impressive[…] through changes of timbre, you could play anything from any of the twelve notes of a scale on the piano to noise. They were all on that record.
Timbre is everything in modal Jazz. It’s about a sound, a style – in Coltrane’s case, a strength of tone, an intensity of drive, a fluid fury, a power of incantation.
In my trilogy, as you say, I de-emphasised the complexities of plot in favour of the elaboration of particular motifs. The narrative set-up is quite simple; what matters is the extemporization it permits.
Here, of course, Thomas Bernhard was a primary influence. As he says, ‘In my work, whenever any sort of portent of a story appears, or I see any sort of suspicion of a story surfacing from behind a massif of prose, I shoot it down’. Bernhard writes as demoniacally as Coltrane. He’s a Coltrane of prose, as torrential, as intense, as individual. It’s that Bernhard’s improvisational, intensely musical style that counts, not story – the equivalent of Coltrane’s rising and falling runs, his arpeggiated flights and hard-edged phrasings, his screams, shrieks and multiphonics.
Yes, there’s more plot in my current novels than previously. I use the real biography of the relevant philosopher as a narrative template. But something changes when the lives of old European philosophers are replayed in a context where intellectuals have little public role. Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Weil are a type rarely met today. They want to live philosophy, to incarnate it. Philosophy necessitates a transformation of one’s way of being.
In our times, this claim seems so overblown, so contrary to the usual aspirations in our lives, that it becomes comic, even farcical. We’re natural sceptics. Reading the biographies of thinkers of the past, there’s a desire to debunk, to account for philosophical ambition in terms of medical conditions, latent madness, disavowed sexuality; in terms of thwarted, inefficacious lives … We like to extricate the person ‘behind’ the work rather than engaging with the work itself. Indeed, it stops us having to engage with it. Our ‘human interest’ in the lives of thinkers is a sign of our philistinism.
Attend to the biographies of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Weil, and it’s clear that no ‘real person’ can be said to lie ‘behind’ their work. These exceptional thinkers sought to live what they thought, to enact it. This makes them laughably earnest to the naysayers of our anti-intellectual times, but fascinating to others (including the young characters in my fiction).
My current novels are concerned with both that fascination and that laughableness. It seeks to hold them in tension. Yes, the biographies of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Weil provide their overall structure. But just as important are the comic escapades of my other characters which – farcically, parodically – respond to the fascinating and ridiculous presence of the thinker in their midst. They show the effects of living the life of thought in a philistine time.
For that reason, my current novels do more than follow the linear biographies of their titular philosophers. Sure, Nietzsche and the Burbs builds to a climax modelled on the vicissitudes of the real Nietzsche, but what happens after that climax – the long night in the woods – is just as significant. It’s all the comic stuff between tragic, biography-inspired plot points that’s the meat of the novel.
The ancient Greeks always had the light, fun-poking satyr play follow a tragedy. A relief, after the serious stuff. In my current novels, the satyr play is interwoven with the tragedy. Seriousness and fun are intertwined, philosophy, the former queen of the sciences is one with its jester …
Wittgenstein has a lot of rich, biographical material – from Ray Monk’s hagiographic (and I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense) biography to Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It to Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein to Bernhard. Do you immerse in any kind of biographical research to prepare for these books? Or do you prefer to forego research and work more with the myth of a figure like Nietzsche?
Sure, I do my biographical research on my philosophers. I read a great deal as I write – not just about philosophers or on philosophy, but about music, theology, social and cultural theory, politics, history, all kinds of things. I stuff my head. The point is to learn, but also to forget what I’ve learnt.
A story to explain. Abū Nuwās asked Khalaf for permission to compose poetry, and Khalaf said: ‘I refuse to let you make a poem until you memorize a thousand passages of ancient poetry, including chants, odes, and occasional lines’. This Abū did. ‘Recite them’, said Khalaf. This Abū also did, and asked permission once again to compose poetry.
Khalaf’s reply: ‘I refuse, unless you forget all one thousand lines as completely as if you had never learned them’. This task took Abū even longer than learning the lines in the first place.
The point is to incorporate your research into your life, to digest it, if your work is going to be sufficiently light – and lightness, for me, is everything. It has to operate almost unconsciously in your work; it has to be part of its simplest gestures. That lightness is what is usually missing from philosophical novels, from fiction of ideas.
Do you think Nietzsche and the Burbs is being read slightly differently given the current state of British politics? You had those striking graphics showing that Labor-Conservative divides perfectly track youth versus the elderly. There is also an attitude of suspicion and incomprehension from centrists towards youth-led political movements like Momentum or the DSA in US. Are the characters in the book emblematic of a particular generation, or are their attitudes more general (say, at this point to over a century of youth who have found insight in Nietzsche’s thought)?
Politics, as David Graeber argues, is becoming a war between generations. We’re supposed to move rightwards with age as we become more financially secure. But it’s unlikely that this security, home-ownership and the rest, will arrive for the young.
Whence hope in new youth-led political movements even as we wait for the trigger-event that will generate the next financial crisis, even as we’re surrounded by ‘deaths of despair’ from drugs, suicide and alcohol.
The teen characters of my novel begin by rejecting the world it currently exists. They can’t imagine there’ll be some green revolution, or that financialism will ever end. They fall short of the broad political ambition of today’s youth-led movements. But they come to dream of abandoning the world, of leaving society, finding the clues to this utopia in collective music-making. Are they emblematic of a particular generation? I hope so.
Should we be speaking more about nihilism in Great Britain, the US, France, or other places marked by political turmoil? Is the reduction of great swaths of public discourse to electoral politics preventing a more appropriate conversation from emerging?
A simple definition of nihilism: Life turns against life.
Life, for the historical Nietzsche, is a continual process of growth, of power with respect to something else. It involves an ongoing overcoming of habits you’ve acquired and values you hold. It’s tiring! Exhausting! It’s a struggle to maintain. The problem is that life can turn against itself; it can become ill, decadent or stagnant. It can lose its way in nausea.
Hannah Arendt suggests nihilism grows when there’s no meaningful connection to political life, to the public sphere. Politics is merely procedural, administrative. This is the technocratic managerialism of political life today, which busies itself with the solutions-business – with controllable problems and the negotiation of interests.
This is another reason for the nausea of youth, their nihilism. They’re tired of what Žižek calls ‘post-politics’ or Rancière, the ‘end of politics’. They know that the politics of expert knowledge, of solution-management is entirely unable to address the climate crisis, or the next financial emergency. There’s a war between generations about the meaning of politics.
For many, despair has transformed into action. The hope of the new youth-led directly-democratic movements you mention is real. So too is the prospect of a voting bloc of Millennials and Zoomers that will outnumber the babyboomers.
The students in the book often come back to millenarian themes, but they oscillate between two poles. On the one hand they can draw on the tradition that looks to the other side the millenarian horizon…something is drawn to an end, but another thing can finally begin. But there is also the presence of Beckett, who invokes a completely different millenarian temporality (to mix a spatial with a temporal term). Here are the students when they visit Reading:
Reading University, where the Beckett archives are kept. To think, Beckett’s work ended up here, in Reading. To think, Beckett scholars fly into Reading from all over the world. To think, this is where the great Beckett conferences are run, year after year . . .
Reading! Beckett! Beckett! Reading! Impossible to reconcile! Impossible to bring together! How can it be? Who allowed it? Proof that there is no God! No providence! No cosmic design!
How did they arrive here, the Beckett archives? Who brought them to Reading from Ussy-sur-Marne? Who shipped them from France, from Paris? Who sent them to Reading, the opposite of Paris? Who couriered them to Reading, the anti-Paris?
The Beckett archives, glowing like kryptonite in Reading University library. The Beckett archives, throbbing strangely. Do they have to keep them behind special glass? Do they have to handle them with tongs? Because if there was any real contact with Reading . . . if the manuscript of Endgame were actually to touch Reading, it would be like the collision of matter and anti-matter. It would explode and take all of Reading with it.
How would you describe the millenarian speculations, fantasies, and humor of the students?
My teen characters begin the book as millennialists. Death to the world!: that’s their mantra. Art carries it even further: ‘Death to the everything! Death to everyone! Including ourselves!’
My character, Nietzsche, isn’t buying it. He finds the despair of his new friends a little too articulate; they show too much satisfaction in their declared disgust. For Nietzsche, the overcoming of nihilism cannot be achieved through negation, and through satisfaction in negation. You have to reach the possibility of affirmation if you want to reclaim the power to live.
This is a view the characters, each in their own way, come to share: Art discovers affirmation through music, Paula, through romantic love, Merv, through religious faith and Chandra – implicitly – through writing Nietzsche and the Burbs. And the characters reach the possibility of making a collective affirmation towards the end of the novel, foreshadowing a politics not far removed from that of the Invisible Committee …
A Beckettian millenarianism? A few words on Reading to contextualise your quotation from the novel.
My characters can’t believe Beckett’s archives are held in Reading, the county town of Berkshire, seven miles or so from Wokingham. Why not?
Reading’s much larger and more diverse than Wokingham, with residues of a working class population. It isn’t listed quite so regularly among the top towns to live in in the UK. Reading itself hasn’t got any particular character, any particular charm. It’s just a jumble of old and new buildings – a real motley, a non-place.
There’s a sense that Reading has never really come to itself – never achieved critical mass. It’s been applying for, and refused, city status for many years. It’s not really about anything. It doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t excite anyone. No one would rally to its cause.
Sure, Reading’s thriving. Its busy. Its location and transport links favour business. The entire town centre is prime office floor space. They’re extending Crosslink from London. There’s perpetual construction work; they’re always rebuilding the town. But Reading, as a town, is only the suburban dream of the urban. It’s the urban of the suburban. It’s essential a suburban space, and therefore completely continuous with the world my characters know.
That’s why it’s so shocking to them that the Beckett archives are held by Reading University library. Beckett himself, the model of modernist literary courage! Of single-minded intensity of focus! Of intellectual honesty! Beckett sees through everything! And Beckett exiled himself to France – to Paris. He got away!
My characters are studying Endgame at school, the great comedy of entropy, of the great wind-down. The play provides us with just the opposite of the myth of creation; its world is being diminished to its raw elements – to a muckheap, under dimming skies. What’s left for Endgame’s characters but to fool around – to engage in the old slapstick over and again, with less vigour each time, like a decimal running onto infinity?
No surprise that my characters recognise themselves in Beckett’s play. For them, Endgame points to the ‘apocalypse of nihilism’ in and as the Berkshire suburbs, the suburbs of Wokingham and Reading. An apocalypse without revelation, without truth, that reveals only spiritual blankness and desolation.
At the heart of all your novels is the experience of being around a thinker who elicits your reverence and in some sense helps your own development (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein), or the felt pain of the absence of such a figure (the real thinker that Lars and W are always searching for). If you can forgive the personal question, I wonder if you could speak a bit about what Maurice Blanchot has meant to you, in generating both that feeling of reverence and that recognition of its absence.
I first came across Blanchot’s work in a quotation in a bad biography of Foucault back in 1993, in the suburbs. I had just graduated into a recession; the temp work I depended on was sporadic. I copied out the quotation, pondered it. It seemed to speak with uncanny sensitivity of issues that concerned me at the time – death, the work of art.
This led me to The Siren’s Song, a collection of Blanchot essays edited by Gabriel Josipovici, held by Reading University Library (that place again!). I should very grateful to that library, because, although I was never a student there – I would simply wander in from the street – it allowed me my first prolonged contact with continental thought, notably Hélène Cixous and Georges Bataille. The antidote to the suburbs was right there in the suburbs!
Off I went to Manchester on a PhD scholarship (back to Manchester; I’d studied there as an undergraduate). Away from the suburbs! I wrote about the three ‘H’s: Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger, giving myself what I thought was an appropriate grounding to grasp Blanchot’s thought. Alas, I never thought to approach him first of all as a writer of literary fiction – a real mistake …
Do I revere Blanchot? Despite my fascination, I feel I’ve understood – really understood – so little of his thought. I’m still confounded by it, though William S. Allen’s and Jeff Fort’s recent work has taught me much about how to read it. The million words of my blog, Spurious – from which my fiction eventually sprang – were an attempt to write with Blanchot. Another mistake! Blanchot’s world was so ludicrously removed from my own.
This mistake became propitious when I began to incorporate this sense of Blanchot’s remoteness into my blog-writing, as I began to approach his thought – and that of Bataille, Cixous, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others via an English and perhaps suburban distance.
That’s how I discovered my style, such as it is; that’s how I stumbled into writing fiction. Humour (perhaps a distinctively English humour, a humour of a certain English class) was key. A blackly humorous laughter at myself as an thought-impostor from the suburbs, from the UK, who dared to look up to these continental greats.
Whence the Spurious trilogy. W. and Lars, in those novels, are fascinated by a host of continental thinkers from an impossibly distant intellectual world. My characters can never quite take themselves seriously as intellectuals – how could they, in an anti-intellectual, anti-European culture? They’re marginalised; they’d like a thought-leader, but who would lead them? With W. and Lars, the UK-based continental philosopher becomes a buffoon, and European philosophy a fool’s errand. The Spurious trilogy saw me stage that buffoonery in literary fiction (a buffoonery of fiction).
My current trilogy focuses on much younger characters, who are much less aware of European thought. But my Nietzsche nonetheless emerges as a thought-leader for them, by showing how they might escape the endgame of the suburbs – the ‘apocalypse of nihilism’ – through a version of amor fati, the love of fate.
I should ask a question about music, as it plays a huge role in the book. The death of David Berman hit a lot of us really hard and led one of our editors to write a very beautiful essay on Berman’s relationship to Judaism. Did Berman’s work mean anything to you? I ask because music, theology, and philosophy are often bound together in your books, as it was for Berman.
I admired David Berman greatly. I bought the Purple Mountains LP the day it came out and listened to it over and over. I thought it was the best thing he ever did. A correspondent said he was worried about Berman’s state of mind. I said, don’t be; putting out this album should be consolation enough. Alas, I was wrong!
Yes, Berman’s relationship to Judaism, to Jewish thought, was at the heart of his work. Amazing that he was able to draw on this tradition in a truly popular form, that tens of thousands of fans admire his work. And there was a marvellous integrity to his work and life. His interviews were a lifeline. Wonderful to find such pessimism in public – and such a style of pessimism. It’s enough to give you hope.
Music plays such a vast part in Nietzsche and the Burbs because it has always played a vast part in the lives of so many of us. It was all about music! Music was always at the centre of my friendships. Listening to Polish jazz together after the pub. Eating drunkenly-prepared enchiladas in front of videos of flamenco dancing. Blasting out the Dead Kennedys in the car on the way to the sixth form dinner. Playing Splat! on a ZX Spectrum and listening to the twelve inch of ‘White Lines’ over and over.
I’ve said it before, but music felt for us, prayed for us, raged for us, even thought for us. Talk about music was the only permitted intellectual talk – the only intellectual topic (though perhaps film came to rival that). Gigs and nightclubs were a model of an ecstatic being-together that we looked for elsewhere …
When I was a teen, my dream was to be part of a band that could redeem our suburban life, making sense of everything retrospectively. My dream was Wokingham was the only place this band could have formed, and that my friends and I, brought up in the suburbs, were the only people who could have brought it into existence. And our music would be so good – so unique – that listeners would come to see the place where it was made, and where its makers came from.
And Wokingham wouldn’t just be this commuter town, this knot in the suburbs, but the origin of this transformative music, its only possible origin, which would make it a place worthy of pilgrimage. What would they see, these pilgrims? A town like any other, just the same as any other, but also unlike any other because of our music. And maybe they could go back to their own suburban towns and make affirmatory music of their own …
My dream was of the possibility of a collective amor fati, a love of our suburban fate, a way of loving the suburban hand we were dealt, of redeeming ourselves through music. The characters of Nietzsche and the Burbs share a kind of ‘aesthetic theodicy’ – a sense that art can overcome nihilism, which they seek to realise through the test of their thought-leader’s notion of the Eternal Return.
It’s a dream that I continue to harbour in my own way as the author of a novel about my hometown. Reading Blanchot in Reading University library, I fantasised about a kind of writing that would double up the suburbs, would set them out of phase with themselves – a writing in dub, to which there belonged a power of dissolution that would break down suburban structures and undo its forms. That’s what dawned in me back then in the suburbs, even as I sensed the laughableness of my ambition …
Michael Schapira is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop.