Boredom is powerful

The Canal, by Lee Rourke

First novels can be exciting things. There’s the potential of course, the signs of what’s yet to come. For me though the real excitement is discovering a fresh voice shedding new light on old issues.

The Canal is Lee Rourke’s first novel (he previously published a short story collection). It’s beautifully and lucidly written and in it Rourke manages something slightly extraordinary. He writes about the experience of being bored without himself being boring.

As an aside, it’s delightful to see such a good and original cover. It’s even better that it suits the book. Too often covers are generic or uninspired. Fiction by women authors seems to particularly struggle with this with all too many getting packaged in pastels regardless of the content.

Anyway. As The Canal opens its nameless narrator has decided not to go to work but instead to stop at a bench alongside a canal halfway between Hackney and Islington (in London). He sits at the bench, which is difficult to see due to shrubbery until one is almost upon it, and just watches. He watches the birds on the canal, he watches the office workers opposite and the inhabitants of some of the local flats. He watches the canal.

I watched the Canada geese. Two of them. Mates. I liked them. I always have done. They’ve lived-various geese, the coots, the moorhens-on this canal for as far back as I can remember. They ignored me as they inspected a box that was floating beside them, before they stopped to preen each other and then took turns sifting the silty banks for titbits-arses to the world. I began to think about my childhood: I couldn’t believe that I used to swim in this very canal-when the locks were full, the oil dripping from my ears, dodging the floating scum that had built up near the lock’s edge. I thought nothing of the pollution back then.

What he does is something revolutionary. He embraces boredom. He accepts being bored, doing nothing, and sees where it takes him.

Even a man sitting alone by a canal has a social context. Sitting there he encounters garrulous old people, some of whom may be mad. He encounters drunks and a local woman out with her dog who is seemingly pent with fury at everything and nothing. There is a gang of local teenagers who act as if they were extensions of one single organism and who bring with them a restless menace.

He encounters too a woman who sits alongside him and watches the canal and office block just as he does. Slowly, as the days pass, he comes to talk to her and she tells him her secrets – perhaps because as a stranger he can do nothing with them.

The canal of the novel is a filthy thing, mired in mud and garbage. Rourke’s prose however is limpid and a pleasure to read. He provides detailed descriptions of the utterly quotidian, of planes flying overhead and of high-rise buildings, and in doing so he makes them beautiful. This is the narrator’s perspective, for his boredom allows him space to see the things that surround him in a way that those of us who fill our days with activity struggle to.

Bored as he is, the narrator has plenty of time to think. Much of what he thinks about is boredom. He thinks about how boredom drives us, about its power and about how the desire to escape boredom causes us to pursue amusements that deep down are boring too but which are at least distracting. He thinks about the absence of meaning, and about what it means.

It is obvious to me now that most acts of violence are caused by those who are truly bored. And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot ignore.

There is a distinctly Ballardian tone to the novel. When the woman he shares the bench with talks of being excited by cars it’s hard not to detect a reference. There’s more than surface similarity though, there’s an exploration of similar themes. The quote immediately above this paragraph is as clear a statement of a Ballardian worldview as I can imagine.

As his relationship with a woman he does not know the name of and sees nowhere other than on the bench deepens, she shares more of her own thoughts and feelings. They are shocking, not least when she reveals her fascination with and admiration for suicide bombers (including the London 7 July bombers and the 9/11 killers). He has feels nothing but horror and revulsion for them. She replies:

“But you know as much as I do why they do it.”
“I do?”
“Yes. You do. There’s nothing left to believe in anymore. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real. It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts. They have nothing else to do. We are empty. You know that …”
“Yes, I do … Everything is boring.”
“Exactly …”
I felt closer to her in that moment.

When first I saw references to the July bombings and to 9/11 I was concerned I was reading another novel about the fallout from those events. Thankfully, it’s nothing so puerile. Rather, Rourke is exploring a kind of existential boredom. A need for something more than we have and the implications of the realisation that this something more may not exist. That it may need to be invented. We have mapped the universe and found it empty of ghosts in the machine. There seems only to be us and our own existence appears mere accident. In the face of that, the novel says, horror becomes inevitable.

There is a plot of sorts to this novel. The narrator’s increasing obsession with and understanding of his bench-mate drives matters along as does the vacuously brutal Greek chorus of the local teenage gang. I won’t talk about that though. What I will say is that this is a tremendously accomplished novel. There’s a deep sensuality to it, a feeling of being present in the senses and in the moment and of really seeing what is around us. The challenge of the novel is that so much of what is around us is on examination ugly in ways that go quite beyond the surface.

As the novel opens the narrator thinks about the dredgers that work the canal. They clear out the muck and retrieve discarded shopping trolleys, mopeds and other debris. As the days pass he keeps waiting for the dredgers. Their arrival will take the chaos of the canal and restore it to order. The dirty will become clean. The canal’s real problems though aren’t the things thrown into it, they’re the people that surround it and no dredger can clean that.

The Canal is a novel rooted in the world I see around me. It’s style is naturalistic even down to the dialogue having empty silences and stumbling phrases. It has an almost photographic quality to its descriptions that reminds me of nineteenth Century French fiction. It’s a novel that lingers in the memory and that I expect to return to.

The urban environment The Canal depicts is one that anyone who lives in a large city will recognise. Commuters ignore their surroundings as they make their journeys. Office workers inhabit their spaces and are oblivious to what’s outside. Those forgotten by or excluded from society are purposeless and broken in their different ways. People are shaped by the spaces they live in and when those spaces are empty of everything but concrete and corporate sponsorship so too are the people. Boredom is inescapable and the alternatives may be worse.

I first heard about The Canal at John Self’s blog, The Asylum, here. Interestingly I note we picked out some of the same quotes. I always find that strangely reassuring. John draws parallels with Melville and Bernhard that, having read neither, I can’t and for that as well as many other reasons his thoughts are well worth reading.

The Canal


Filed under Rourke, Lee

34 responses to “Boredom is powerful

  1. This novel really appealed to me when I saw it at The Asylum, and I went looking for it during a trip to a book shop. It wasn’t there, but I’m convinced more than ever that I would like this book.

    The 9-11 reference, I have to say, does seem somewhat superimposed. Still as you said, first novel, and it still appeals.

  2. I think you would too Guy.

    Perhaps it is a little, but the book’s of a time and place and those are current things. There’s a sense too of the woman seeking to shock. The narrator’s reliable but how reliable she is is open to question.

  3. leroyhunter

    I’m fascinated by that cover. Great work by Melville House.

    I have to admit I’m a bit put off by that snatch of dialogue, which is unfair given it’s a tiny sample of the book. But I’m encouraged by the Ballard comparisons, the influence seems pretty clear in what you’ve cited.

    I’m reminded of Tao Lin’s stuff, but I think I’m right in saying that none of his characters ever mention boredom or admit / refer to being bored. My instinct is that I prefer that approach but I’m still going to look out for this.

  4. Here’s a couple more dialogue examples Leroy:

    This is the narrator and the woman discussing a swan which lives on the canal:

    “Have you seen him?”
    “The swan … there?”
    “How do you know it’s a he?”
    “He’s big. It’s got to be a he.”
    “Well, he … she … whatever … is beautiful. Truly, truly beautiful.”

    Here’s the teenagers:

    “What are you doing, man?”
    “What you up to, man?
    “What you doing?”
    “What you doing here?”
    This seemed to be ejaculated at once; a cacophony of teenagers and testosterone-a heady combination.
    “What you doing on this bench for, man?”
    “What you doing on this bench?”
    “What you doing just sitting here?”
    “What you doing, man?”
    My right leg began to shake. I wanted to shout, to start running, but I couldn’t muster the energy.
    “Are you a battyboy, man?”
    “Are you a battyboy, innit?”
    “Are you a batttyboy?”
    “Battyboy, man?”

    It continues, but that should give the idea. Essentially, it’s highly naturalistic which of course dialogue in novels (exempting Roddy Doyle who’s a master of this) generally isn’t.

    Tao Lin’s an interesting comparator, but the Tao Lin I’ve read the characters as you say don’t discuss being bored. But then that’s a description of a way of life whereas this is in some ways more an exploration of the idea. It has to face it more squarely.

  5. leroyhunter

    I think I was reacting particularly to the line “It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts” – that just doesn’t sound like natural speech to me plus I felt uncomfortable at what Guy mentioned about a “big theme” being yoked into the exchange.

    Thanks for posting the additional dialogue: I think I’m pretty well sold. I like the idea of the gang-chorus, you get a sense of the overlapping, hostile voices in the quote.

  6. I thought the gang sequences were extremely good. Very credible.

    I take your point though on that particular line in the original quote.

    There’s another novel I have but haven’t yet read which gets dialogue right, Londonstani. The dialogue in the opening chapter (which I have read) is extremely persuasive and also captures that sense of people egging each other on in a banal circle of aggression.

  7. Nick

    The chorus of voices seems indeed wonderful.
    I was already convinced to get this book by John’s post and clearly haven’t changed my decision here !

  8. Like others I am intrigued by the Ballardian influence, and curious to see if I would be able to pick out Melville. Am also reminded of McCarthy in the way you describe Rourke’s observations of the mundane and ordinarily distasteful.

    Wonderful, engrossing review, Max. Definitely aim to get a copy. On a superficial level, nice to be in at the beginning of a promising writing career, even if it is on the strength of a tip off!

  9. Sam

    Great review, Max. I think my experience of “The Canal” was very similar to yours.

    Hadn’t thought about it til I read your review, but I found myself thinking of Murakami’s “Underground” as a read “The Canal,” which though nonfiction is also a medley the themes of boredom and unreality and meaningless and violence. Then I recalled a comment Murakami made last year in a newspaper interview, which seems even more relevant to Rourke’s book, and shows perhaps how 9/11 ties in:

    “A common state of mind among people in the contemporary world is that they become unsure about whether the world they see is actually real. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York in scenes that seemed to be unreal. As video footage of the towers collapsing were shown over and over again, some people might unwittingly and momentarily have felt they were straying into an odd world where no such towering buildings existed. They possibly think there could be a world where U.S. President George W. Bush was not reelected and the Iraq war did not break out.

    I think the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995 and the Aum sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March that year made many Japanese experience a sense of dissociation from reality before people of other countries. They asked themselves, “What we are here for?” My novels, except for “Norwegian Wood,” do not represent what we call realism, but seem to have started being accepted the world over as works representing new realism–especially after 9/11.”

    The notion of a “new realism” is kind of interesting in connection with Rourke’s book. I’m reminded that the term was also using in connection with Henry Green’s work half a century ago, and it’s not too great a stretch to see some of Green’s qualities in Rourke too.

  10. steve in minneapolis

    Your review caused me to get Patricia Meyer Spacks’ “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind” down from my shelf. Although I remember liking the book years ago when I read it, I didn’t remember much about it, so it was chilling in the context of your review to almost immediately stumble on this -“The history of boredom in its cultural constructions matters partly because boredom itself now appears to matter so much. If boredom can provide plausible justification for acts of violence or self-destruction, if the desire to forestall it sells fountain pens and trips around the world, if fiction writers assume it as the substratum of experience and journalists draw on it as a readily comprehensible realm of reference – if all of the above are true, it would seem that boredom has assumed broad explanatory power in a society widely felt to be baffling.” (p. 272)

  11. Interesting review Max – I recall debating on-line with Lee a few years back (amongst others) about the nature of boredom. I didn’t agree with his position then – he seemed to be arguing we should embrace boredom as an end in itself, which struck me as rather conceited (the sort of sound bite Baudrillard might utter) not a practical nor realistic application for living – but it seems he’s tapped into something in The Canal, and the reviews are proving to be strong.

    It’s intersting that the scene that Lee came from – the entire 3AM / Social Disease / Off Beat generation – have actually had some cut through, possibly the first generation to lay the groundwork for their careers entirely on-line .

    You may be interested to know this is actually Lee’s 2nd novel, his first was published in 2008 and is called ‘Everyday’.

  12. Sounds fascinating. Reminds me a little of Meursault in The outsider – the tone, the flatness – or am I off the track completely? The cover is mesmerising.

  13. You’ve read more McCarthy than I have Sarah, but now you point it out I see what you mean. Interesting comparison.

    Sam, lovely Murakami quote and he is another good comparator. Murakami tends of course to the surreal (though not every novel is – South of the Border, West of the Sun is one of my favourites and contains no smuch elements), which Rourke doesn’t but there’s a flatness to the descriptive prose which is similar.

    Flatness there is not a criticism, unjudgemental would perhaps be a better word (well, except that I’m not sure that’s a real word. I’ve not read Henry Green, but I’ve heard great things. Would you recommend him?

  14. Steve, that really couldn’t be more on point could it? I wonder if Rourke had read that book.

    The “desire to forestall it sells fountain pens and trips around the world”, that’s almost from this novel.

    Richard, I think Everyday was the short story collection I referred to, though I could be wrong. I’m not familiar with the whole 3am/Social Disease/Off Beat thing, though I saw the last of that trio referenced on the cover. What’s all that about?

    WG, I can see that and certainly some of the reactions to the narrator are as hostile and incomprehending as Meursault faces, but Meursault is a much more courageous character. The narrator here is frequently terrified, his right leg trembles when he is afraid and that happens a lot. There’s no sense he’d face death rather than lie. Stylistically again though I can see it a bit, again not a comparison I’d have thought of but there is that element of choosing to ignore convention (and conventional unconvention) and living with the truth of your experience.

  15. Thanks Max, your answer is sort of what I expected. I haven’t read this of course and it was pretty clear from your review that it’s quite different, but there was some little “sense” that I felt I detected. Your response answers that well.

  16. 3Am / Social Disease / Off-Beat Generation are all affiliations of a collection of writers (mostly based in East London but also in Paris) who came together around 2005, and using the internet (and in particular MySpace) began networking, running literary events and – most significantly – publishing their work independent of the mainstream publishers. It was quite a vibrant scene and the writers in it juggled their literary projects with freelance journalism for the Guardian, Dazed&Confused and a few other publications.

    3AM is an on-line publication that is always interesting, especially the interviews. Have a look. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  17. Thanks Richard, I’ll check that out. An interesting project, and nice to see it worked for some of them.

  18. Sam

    Green is certainly worth reading, Max. Nobody quite like him even today. His memoir Pack My Bag is probably closest to Rourke – the flat affect matched with startling emotional revelations.

    Just noticed that Brooke Allen’s old essay on Green is online — it’s one of my favorites:

  19. Thanks Sam, I’ll print that out and have a read.

  20. I published my own review of this one today Max and am pleased to see that we agree with each other so much on it. I really enjoyed reading it and felt the same kind of excitement as when I read Tom McCarthy’s own debut, Remainder. I’m already looking forward to what he does next.

  21. leroyhunter

    Read it this week Max, and I have to confess to being quite disappointed. For me the Ballard “influence” tipped over into imitation, which is not a good thing. Some of the writing is very strong, but there were jarring elements as well, and I think he’s much better at description / athmosphere then action / dialogue. The canal & environs were beautifully realised, but I found the sudden knowledge dumps about local history odd, as if they’d wandered in from an Iain Sinclair book.

    I thought the narrator’s little self-reflexive breaks in the story were a mixed bag: some were nicely realised and helped build a picture of an individual but others seemed pointless or felt untrue. For some reason the fact he was able to name the precise sub-model of airliners flying overhead really bugged me. And he twice uses the word “snazzy” to describe a phone and a computer monitor, which I thought unforgivable amidst so many other obviously carefully chosen words.

    My main problem though is “the girl”: her story is just too barmy not to be better explained or fleshed out. I came to dread the conversations between her and the narrator, and I thought this strand really weakened the novel overall. I much preferred the company of the narrator on his own.

    I don’t want to sound totally down on the book, as it has some very worthwhile things in it, but there are significant flaws. John Self referenced Bartleby in his review: unfortunately I don’t think Rourke is nearly as radical as Melville in handling his theme of boredom & disengagement.

  22. Leroy,

    Well, I’m sorry I steered you wrong but I’m glad to see your counterview. It’s always interesting to see another take.

    It is very clearly Ballardian, so I can see why you might find it merely imitative. For me it worked, but I’d be happy to see his next novel move a little further from that source. It’s not just the language is it? It’s also the ideas and the story, the sorts of things that happen are Ballardian.

    Iain Sinclair is a nice reference point. Again, those elements worked for me but then I like the architecture chapters in Notre-Dame de Paris.

    The girl’s story clearly isn’t very realistic. I was about to say I didn’t think it a naturalistic novel, but I see above I expressly say the style is naturalistic. Reflecting further I think it’s naturalistic in that sense but not in terms of its content creating a disjunct between the two.

    I would tend to see that disjunction between style and content as a feature of the novel rather than a bug. Fleshing the girl’s part out would have reduced the tension between those elements but I don’t think it would have strengthened the novel. I suspect you’d still have found her part incredible (because it is really) but that incredibility could have ended up even more front and central so overbalancing other elements. Put another way, if this is a flaw I’m not sure it could be fixed without radically restructuring the novel (which you might of course think would be the right thing to do).

    It’s certainly not perfect. I enjoyed the dialogues between the girl and the narrator, and overall of course I really liked the book. The flaws you mention are there, but for me weren’t critical.

    Did you see the TLS? I’ve not seen it myself but I understand it published a very critical review. You might find that interesting if you can get hold of a copy somewhere.

  23. leroyhunter

    Hi Max, welcome back.

    This wasn’t a wrong steer: I enjoyed a lot about the book, I just felt that while the premise and a good deal of the writing were excellent, there were also elements that I guess betrayed the “first novel” syndrome.

    It’s always interesting how different readers respond to a book, and it’s perfectly fair that the tension you mention worked well for you. I think Rourke is to be applauded for tackling the themes he does, and using the reference points he has chosen (was I right to see Vladimir & Estragon in the 2 old drunks who pass by? is the ending supposed to echo a Leda and the swan tableau? – although maybe I’m reaching with that last one).

    I guess my main problem was that some of the pieces didn’t quite fit together, some of the influences (Ballard) are too heavily worn, and some things seemed a little pat (eg narrator’s throwaway explaining how he can survive in his new, adrift mode of life: “I was left money” – oh, that’s OK then!). None of those are crimes of course, and I’ll be quite happy to pick up the next novel when it comes along.

    I haven’t seen TLS review, I assume it’s pay-walled online?

    On a similar point, did you see the piece featuring Rourke & McCarthy in Saturday’s Guardian? I have to say neither of them does themselves any favours with some of the comments they make. I’ve been put right off C by some McCarthy reviews & interviews.

    I wonder what Sam Jordison will make of The Canal in his Not The Booker blog?

  24. Thanks.

    Vladimir and Estragon, I think you are right. I completely missed that, though I did only see the play for the first time last year (McKellen and Stewart, lots of confused Star Trek and X-Men fans in the audience waiting for something to happen and leaving at half time when it became evident it wouldn’t).

    I’ve not checked the TLS review myself, it’s not a journal I follow (nothing against it, but I struggle to keep up with the stuff I do follow). I just saw Rourke tweet about it.

    I’m reading the Guardian piece now. To be honest, I tend not to care much what authors are like or how their lives and views influence their books. The books are either good art or bad art, if they can’t stand separate to their authors then the authors arguably are the art which I don’t think is the case here.

    Do you read the blog The Drift? I’ve been discussing the same topic there to a degree.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with any of your criticisms by the way, they just didn’t bother me as much (but these things are inevitably individual). I am keen to see Rourke develop his voice so it’s more clearly distinct from Ballard’s.

    I’ll pop back once I’ve finished the Guardian piece with any additional thoughts.

  25. leroyhunter

    I thought I’d gone too far bringing Leda into it but Rouke comments in that Guardian thread that he has a book about fables due out, so maybe I’m not so far off. It just seemed such a clear image when I read the ending.

    I tend to agree with you on the authors vs work question, but McCarthy seems to have placed his “manifesto” so front-and-centre (aligning himself with modernist greats; attacking “contemporary middlebrow writing”) that it has become impossible (for me) to separate his own work from his positions. The problem is (or seems to be) that his novels don’t live up to the claims he makes about himself, his work, other writers etc. I mean, seriously – claiming Finnegans Wake as a “model” for your own novel? That’s a pretty big statement, way wide of the mark based on the reviews I’ve read.

    I haven’t read The Drift but I’ll look it up – thanks for the pointer.

  26. Given the fables link, perhaps not.

    Going forward, I think I’ll be avoiding McCarthy talking about his manifesto. I’m looking forward to his books, it would be a shame to spoil them by reading his philosophy…

    Nothing wrong with ambition, but it can shade into hubris.

    The Drift is in my linkroll under Film and arts blogs. It’s one of my favourites actually.

  27. First Max many thanks for your kind words regarding The Drift. Discussions we’ve been having there have helped greatly with my own creative work, and are always highly valued. I look forward to many more.

    Secondly, I find it amusing your reaction to the Rourke/ McCarthy interview and all that talk of manifestos. At The Drift I noted:

    Yes, I’ve read those interviews and have found them rather pretentious and ghastly; it’s almost as if one is employed as a writer one must assume certain mannerisms. I recall John Le Care recently admitting he smoked during a BBC interview in the 60’s despite not being a smoker, nor ever smoking again. And anyone who’s struggled through the dialogues between Martin Amis and Will Self will see how quickly sharp minds can descend into farce when forced to perform.

    Then I discover this – frankly refreshing – review of ‘C’ that addresses this very gripe, which even brings in Amis as a barometer of literary conceitedness. It begins.

    “Whoever said “All publicity is good publicity” failed to predict the behaviour of Tom McCarthy. Since the belated success of his novel Remainder (completed in 2001, a hit in 2007), he has emerged as the most galling interviewee in Britain, outstripping even Martin Amis, improbable as that sounds. The typical McCarthy utterance draws a perfect circle: “The avant-garde can’t be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin. Then you’re just a creationist.” His fame has complicated matters. He serves as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, but is now invited to pontificate in the kinds of media outlets for which this art collective would have unaffected (or only partly affected) scorn; he continues to excoriate the mainstream and champion the little-known, all the while indulging an appetite for self-promotion that makes Norman Mailer look like Thomas Pynchon.”

    All of which reminds us writing should be about the writing.

  28. This is a man who wrote a book about Tintin. A book which, I’m convinced, is less about Tintin and more about McCarthy convincing the literary establishment to take something seriously because he tells them to do so 🙂

  29. leroyhunter

    Richard, ouch, that’s some job the New Statesman has done on McCarthy and his “project”. Thanks for the link.

    I repeat, and echo your sentiment, that what Robson makes clear is that “the writing” isn’t up to much; but “the manifesto” draws so much attention to strengths, influences etc (that are in reality absent).

    I’ve visited The Drift a couple of times, it looks rich and interesting. I’ll be back for more.

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