Press Kit interview for EXODUS
At its core, what would you say Exodus is about?
Exodus is my attempt at a ‘big’ book, a kind of comic Book of Revelations, its philosophy-lecturer characters careening through Britain in the midst of the financial collapse of the late 2000s. Inspired by a range of maverick thinkers – including Žižek, Badiou and Dolar, who feature in the novel – its protagonists dream of taking a fierce last stand against the forces of capitalism, which are arrayed against the life of the mind. Is it really easier to imagine the end of the world than getting rid of capitalism? Anticipating the Occupy movement, and the British student demonstrations of 2011, Exodus is a love letter to would-be thinkers and maverick utopians everywhere.
Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?
W. and Lars are characters I developed as comic relief on my philosophy blog. I meant them to amuse my friends, including the real-life prototype of W. But they began to draw a much broader audience, and I decided that they deserved their own book – and even a series of books – which, although constantly rooted in the cartoon-like intellectual slapstick of the characters, would also bear upon larger concerns.
Why did you decide to write a trilogy? Do the three books need to be read in sequence, or can a reader pick up Dogma or Exodus?
Why a trilogy? I felt that the exuberance of the characters merited more than one book. And there’s the exuberance of the style, too, as crazed as that of Dr Seuss, which is able to encompass virtuosic insult, apocalyptic lament, choice quotations from favourite writers, lyrical accounts of the great thinkers, and potted histories of capital flight and industrial decline. I had a sense that the delirium of my books might measure up to the delirium of our times. That’s what led me from the pared-down settings of Spurious to the much more expansive panorama of Britain in Exodus.
There’s no need for the novels to be read in sequence. Each of them (and pretty much each part of them) is a fractal of the whole. From section to section in my novels, I wanted to retain the immediacy of a daily strip-cartoon like Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, in which characters and situations would have to reveal themselves very quickly to their audience.
How do you feel about the frequent comparisons to Beckett that you've received from critics?
Who wouldn’t be flattered to be compared to Beckett? There are similarities indeed between my trilogy and Beckett’s Godot: both concern a pair of bantering frenemies, eternally wavering between hope and despair. But my novels are more fixed in a particular place and a time than Beckett’s fiction. They’re part of a postmodern age, an age of mass media, in a way that Beckett’s are not. My characters surf the ‘net and play computer games. They read gossip magazines and watch trash TV. These are not incidental details. My characters are very much on our side of the great mountain range of modernism.
I would make a similar claim with respect to the flattering comparisons which have been made between my work and Thomas Bernhard’s. My characters, unlike his, are engulfed in ‘low’ culture. They experience the distance between the contemporary world and the life of the mind much more acutely. The intellectual pursuits of W. and Lars are that much more absurd, that much more anachronistic, because they are undertaken in no supporting context whatsoever. Bernhard satirises Viennese high culture; but in Britain, there is no high culture to satirise. W. and Lars are almost alone in their interest in philosophers like Rosenzweig or Hermann Cohen. The thinker-friends they admire are likewise entirely cut off from contemporary British life. There is pretty much no interest in Britain, academic or otherwise, in the figures W. and Lars venerate.
W. and Lars remind me of Roberto Bolaño’s quixotic characters in The Savage Detectives, who are dedicated to living a poetico-political life – the life of Rimbaud or the Surrealists, the life of the Beat Generation – in a world in which poetry and left-wing politics are utterly irrelevant, and apocalypse waits round the corner. The story I tell of the lost generation of former Essex postgraduates reminds me most of all of the diaspora of Bolaño’s Visceral Realists. W. and Lars are as quixotic, hopeful and deluded as Bolaño’s Robert Belano and Ulysses Lima, driving into the desert. But W. and Lars are not even part of a movement, as Bolaño’s characters were. They’re quite alone... As alone as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, albeit in very different way.
How do you see the future of philosophy & academia? Is it as bleak as it seems to be in the book?
In the last couple of years, we have adopted the U.S. model of higher education in Britain, effectively privatising the university, and vastly increasing fees. Graduates will be burdened with huge debt, and people from poorer backgrounds have been discouraged from academic study. In Britain, there’s another twist, which Mark Fisher has called ‘market Stalinism’. Bureaucracy and managerialism are rife, and audit-culture has spread throughout the academy. Older models of teaching are being abandoned in favour of a kind of professional training. These are desperate times! End times!