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.”
“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.”
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.