Chairman of the Bored: An interview with Lee Rourke
By Darran Anderson.
Lee Rourke: I can think of Beckett’s First Love and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers too – there’s more, I’m sure. I have always been fascinated by canals. I grew up next to an old filled-in canal in Manchester. Manchester, as you can imagine is a tangle of canals. They featured heavily in my childhood, as places of leisure and play, but they also served as routes into the city centre, or to other areas. We used them daily in the summer holidays.
I guess their draw for me now is the sense of place they create, these labyrinthine waterways snaking their way trough the city, both a symbol of stagnation and decay and a past that is almost long forgotten: an industrial past of toil and labour. At the moment we are left hanging between these two images; canals now are mostly left to rot (like the ones in north Manchester where I used to live) or they are used as throughways each day into the city by commuters . . . and of course there’s the gentrification we’re witnessing in east London, where the Regent’s canal is now the place to live and hang out. I’m thinking of the apartments and cafes that have suddenly opened up on the canal banks near Broadway Market in the east end.
In London, I like the fact that the canals sit lower than street level. You have to walk down to the canal. Most people don’t even know they are there it feels. I guess that’s why they appeal to me – I like the idea of walking to the canal, away from everything else. When you are on the canal in London, the rest of the city, a couple of feet above, just seems to fade away.
3:AM: In your writing, there’s a sense that the city itself is an integral part of the story, often as much as the main protagonists, even being a character in itself (the way the labyrinth was in Greek myth or libraries were in Borges). Is that something you’ve consciously pursued?
LR: I see the city as protagonist. For me the city is not setting. The city for me is completely part of the mechanics of my fiction. It is an integral thing, the circuitry of my writing. The city helps me to piece everything together. Without the city my fiction would be just a series of words that depict thought and movement, the city transforms all of this into some sort of living, breathing space between the words.
If we want to connect with modernity through fiction then the city can’t be ignored.
3:AM: You’ve written about your fascination with boredom, how people are afraid of it and don’t fully explore it and the possibilities therein. I was thinking of this recently regarding offshoots of boredom, clichés for example and how they’re dismissed when in fact their origins are often fascinating. What your writing suggests is that when you look at boredom from the right angle it becomes a thing of intrigue and reveals a great deal about the human condition for want of a better word, would that be a fair assessment?
LR: It’s basically a new phenomenon – only about 200 hundred years old. Boredom is inextricably linked to modernity. It is a modern thing. This has to be linked to technology, the fact that technology is leaving us behind, waiting for us to use it. This must be the reason we are becoming increasingly more bored.
But you’re right, I agree, boredom reveals to us the gaping void we are so afraid of. Now that God is dead all we have is technology. Technology once afforded us the privilege of becoming God ourselves, but now technology has surpassed us. We are left paralysed, motionless and lost. No amount of gadgets, holidays, recreational drugs and spiritual awakenings with help to alleviate this underpinning fact. We seriously don’t know what to do with ourselves. This is the crippling nature of boredom: it reveals to us our finite, limited, meaningless lives – and we can’t handle that.
I suppose it’s how we choose to look at this that is the important thing. I would rather try to embrace boredom full-on than try to fill my life with things in order to keep it at bay.
3:AM: Going back to the earlier comments about the city, there’s a sense in the book of ghosts, not in the spirit definition of the word but in terms of memory, that people are haunted by the ghosts of past experiences and childhood and even places themselves are haunted in a way by the knowledge that they once meant something or had a function and no longer do (a derelict factory, a polluted canal). For want of a better word there’s a real strain of psychogeography through the book, is this an idea that you’re particularly interested in? And do you agree that through knowledge of history we can perceive ghosts and significance in the most everyday places (in the main characters case a simple bench takes on huge importance), that we can invest “things” with almost a soul?
LR: There are many shards of memory that interrupt the basic narrative flow of The Canal – these memories are thrust into view by the narrator’s reaction to an event or something he sees. I am interested in the architecture of memory, how we build composite images of things that happened in our lives and how our mind fills in the blanks. Our memories are centred on a single phrase, happening, or feeling and the rest is relayed back to us in a series of composite images that make up the whole of what might have happened. Our mind simply invents things. Chris Marker’s film La Jetée is more of an influence in this respect that say, the psychogeographic collaborations of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit (which are equally as important but serve a different purpose). The fragmentary memories that interrupt the narrative of The Canal may or may not be real – in this sense they feed off what is happening, or what is being seen or felt. I suppose there is something remotely psychogeographic about their presence in the novel, but I also wanted them to represent the motif of blurring that is prevalent throughout the narrative: both the real and the unreal. Memories are like ghosts, our past is a ghost that haunts us at moments when we least expect it, as does our future… But more importantly, we are ghosts in our own present: a present that has already happened or is going to happen at some point. A present where there is no past or future, just the faint memory or idea of one. It’s why bridges and horizons, boundaries and borders are so present in The Canal – I wanted to create a sense of aloneness and distance. That something could, or couldn’t be reached.
3:AM: There’s several very unexpectedly funny scenes in the book but it’s a definite gallows humour. There’s one scene with two Russians with bags of apples and vodka that reminded me of Beckett, that bleak vaudeville-type humour, almost slapstick but quite dark and philosophical at the same time. I know he’s a writer that you have a great deal of time for. What or who were your primary literary influences writing the book?
LR: Humour is important to me, but I never set out to write a ‘funny’ book – I generally recoil from fiction when it is purposely ‘funny.’ Beckett was spot on when he said ‘there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness.’ I can’t argue with that. Beckett is special in this respect: from within the deepest, darkest, blackest recesses of our existence can appear the most wonderful things. Beckett’s darkest work – quite literally in many ways – is How It Is. It’s a work of fragmented and unpunctuated prose, where a ‘voice’ is stuck in darkness and mud (an ugly ‘expanse of black mud on which the larvae of essential humanity crawl’). All of Beckett’s work can be traced back to Dante’s Inferno but none more so than this. The tortuous journey towards hell is Beckett’s base root. Everything comes from that: all the absurdities, the hilarities, the slapstick and one-liners that modern-day theatre-goers love so much.
There is a sense of the slap-stick in The Canal, obviously, and also a threat of violence, but I also wanted to tap into this darker Beckettian world where ‘nothing is more real than nothing.’ I wanted to see what I could create from nothing – so it’s interesting that there is an overlap of misery and humour in The Canal: they both came from the same dark depths; they’re essentially the same thing.
Apart from Beckett I would say that the writings of both Maurice Blanchot and Martin Heidegger influenced the writing of The Canal – as well as the poetry of WB Yeats.
3:AM: One of the things that seems to plague the central characters is this sense that they are doomed to freedom, they don’t fit in to society, they’re fuckups and fuckups are the only ones that are free. But by being so they have lives that are unsatisfied and torturous, they have yearnings that go unfulfilled whereas most people around them (the office workers who frequently watch them for example) are as happy as pigs in shit because it never occurs to them that anything is amiss. It leads them to some very dark actions. I know that’s a gross simplification but it seems that they’ve somehow fallen out of society like Meursault or the Underground Man in Dostoyevsky, they’re outside the narrative and it makes them dangerous. The main female character for example talks about how extraordinary suicide bombers are; she says the unsayable, the taboo, sentiments that we ban largely because they’re uncomfortably true but don’t fit the comforting official narrative we follow, the good and evil compartments. Do you see the main characters in this Existentialist mould, that the very thing that gives them their awareness, their individuality, their drive for something more is the thing that exiles them from society, that condemns them?
LR: As I see it, not only are the characters within The Canal two people caught outside of society looking in, but The Canal itself, written in the form of a novel in the language that was passed down to me from my parents (English), is something that exists outside of literature and looks back in, also. I am continually aware that all fiction is construct – it can never be real, those who believe things like biography, autobiography and confessional realism to be real are missing the point: everything is fiction. It is up to us, as Ballard says, to invent new realities with these fictions. We have to turn things in on themselves, and essentially ourselves. When artists pour their hearts into their work, and label their work with their own heart, somehow thinking they are revealing to us their inner-most ‘being’ I suddenly become distrustful of them, it’s a trap they have fallen into: there is a horrible yearning within us to become ‘authentic’ – there’s nothing as boring as art that tries to be ‘authentic’.
I don’t see The Canal as an Existentialist text per se (although there are recognisable existential thoughts discussed within it). I simply see The Canal as a work of fiction about boredom.
Within this fiction there is a fictionalised and philosophical attempt to embrace boredom, which is a result of a perceived fear, or sense of dread: the result of an intersection of violence, boredom and technology in the world that surrounds the narrator. This triumvirate is the crux of the novel, the force which guides the narrator through his questioning of the reality around him. He tries to escape from reality, caught in a miasma of boredom, only to be dragged back into another reality: that of the woman. The woman repeats the same dread, but not passively. She has committed crimes and acted violently – and sees no reason why she shouldn’t have. The woman is everything the narrator is trying to recoil from: the personification of the friction that is caused by trying to defeat boredom. It is only natural that she finds violence interesting and the prosthesis of technology a turn on: she is essentially boredom incarnate, revealing all to him. In her world, suicide bombers become, through prosthesis (the strapping on of electronically timed and triggered explosive devices), machines to be aestheticised and fetishised. We can take from this what ever we want, but we are already seeing the crude aestheticisation and fetishisation of violence in far more explicit ways, in home computer games, for example – which are mostly used, rather ironically, by people when they are bored, or as an aid to pass the time when there is nothing else to do – and in cinema. As the world becomes increasingly more boring (and its occupants more bored) then it will naturally become more violent. I am pretty much convinced that this is exactly what Ballard was implying when he declared that ‘the future is boring.’
3:AM: There’s a strong strain of myth and parable to your work which you’ve spoken about previously (Leda and the Swan in The Canal, Sisyphus in Everyday amongst others), it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh poem ‘Epic’, where the poet watches Irish farmers arguing bare-chested over fields filled with rocks in the middle of nowhere and suddenly he hears Homer‘s voice in his head say, “I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.” These ancient Greek myths that somehow keep recurring through our lives but also that the tiniest events and routines of our lives can suddenly move from the everyday into the epic which happens several times in The Canal. A kind of invigorating but terrifying thing. I know you’ve been working on a forthcoming history of parables for Hesperus Press, what particularly interests you about them? And would you share this belief in a sense of fate if you can call it that? That the main characters were destined to cross paths and that they were always moving towards their particular conclusion?
LR: Hey, I’ve never read this poem before, thanks. I like these lines you quote – there is a sense of the epic in the everyday, there has to be, the everyday is all most of us have.
But, to go back to myth. I am consciously aware of the symbolic order when I write, in that I mean everything has already been said, so I guess the best thing we can do is fuck around with the work that’s already been done for us. I see myth, all myths (not just Greek) as the blueprint for everything I write, in fact, it’s the blueprint for pretty much everything the modern narrative has to offer. Nothing is original. It’s funny, I’ve just re-read some Jorge Luis Borges (for the fables book I’ve written) and there is a wonderful line that I must have missed first time around, as I read it recently and it felt like the very first time, immediately striking a chord within me: ‘For in the beginning of literature is the myth, and in the end as well.’ I think this perfectly sums up a novel like The Canal which operates on an axis of myth and interpretation. The most obvious of which, for me at least, is the re-working of Leda and the Swan into the narrative . . . This is something I consciously did (incidentally, it also repeats a similar theme from a fragment within my short story collection Everyday). I guess, for me, myth is everything.
I’m not sure that I believe in fate – actually I’m quite certain I don’t – but I do understand what you mean when you say ‘the main characters were destined to cross paths.’ I think I understand the power of parable, and it’s probably why Aesop’s fables interest me (although there are no fabulist traits whatsoever in The Canal).
The mystery of the canal, snaking its dirty way through a city is the perfect place for modern parable, and the bench is a perfect spot for respective paths to meet. Not that The Canal is an openly executed work of parable, or for that matter a realist text per se, it’s not, but if you walk down the Regent’s canal on any given day you will invariably see bored people sitting on benches doing nothing. It’s all very mythic down by the canal. Life seems to have stopped, and we are confronted by narrative instead. People are acting out recognisable behavioural patterns down there – I’ve seen it (the same thing happens at beaches, actually, it’s the water, I think; it’s a mirror, something we look into in the hope of seeing our ‘real’ selves, this never happens of course and it either leads to inertia or violence). It seems to me that the canal is a perfectly ordinary place for two bored people’s lives to accidentally align – the fun part for me is inventing what, if anything, will happen when these two strangers meet.
I am interested in everyday speech, in everyday circumstances, in chances, meetings and the tension that can sometimes consume two strangers within the nothingness that separates them. There’s a quote from Maurice Blanchot in his mesmerising essay ‘Everyday Speech’ which sums this up better than I ever could:
‘… the everyday is always unrealized in its very actualization which no event, however important or however insignificant, can ever produce. Nothing happens; this is the everyday. But what is the meaning of this stationary movement? At what level is this “nothing happens” situated? For whom does “nothing happen” if, for me, something is necessarily always happening? In other words, what corresponds to the “who?” of the everyday? And, at the same time, why, in this “nothing happens,” is there the affirmation that something essential might be allowed to happen? [trans., Susan Hanson. Yale French Studies 73 (1987)]
‘Nothing happens; this is the everyday.’ – I fucking love that! In the everyday world that is The Canal anything can be allowed to happen, even when nothing happens, and the myths that underpin all narratives are there, lurking within, to guide us along the way.
3:AM: What’s next for you in terms of writing?
LR: I’ve just finished my little critical study A Brief History of Fables: From Aesop to Flash Fiction, in which I discuss the history of fabulists all the way from Aesop to the wondrous stuff that Blake Butler, Shane Jones and Joseph Young are writing today. It’s published in September.
I’m also finishing my novel Amber which is a long, dense book about electricity, pylon engineers, identity, shelter and dwelling. I’m just about to finish a short story collection called I Like to be Stationary and a novella called Dead End which should all be published at some point in the future via Melville House.
I’ve also got (you asked!) two poetry collections finished called Varroa Destructor and Succinosis and another critical study, this time about boredom called… On Boredom, which I will pick back up later this year. That’s my lot for now.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Lee Rourke is the author of the recently-released novel The Canal (Melville House) and the short story collection Everyday (Social Disease Books). He blogs at Sponge! and lives in London. Photos courtesy of Matthew Coleman.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 21st, 2010.