By Colin Herd.
The Canal, Lee Rourke, Melville House 2010
Sometimes novels seem to define the mood and climate of an era, diagnosing a prevailing atmosphere and getting it just right. It often feels like this kind of book is rarer than a hen’s tooth, but I think I might have just read one. Lee Rourke’s debut novel The Canal, out from Melville House, is a novel about boredom. A man decides to embrace boredom. He quits his job and spends a day sitting on a bench by a canal. He spends a lot of time watching cyclists, planes, swans, and waiting on a dredger. He encounters a strange and distant woman who sits staring straight ahead into an office block opposite. He becomes intrigued and obsessed with her and returns each day to the bench in anticipation of seeing her and eager to break through her closed-up shell and make a connection. Gradually, she begins to tell him stories about her past, stories that the man doesn’t seem to know what to make of, numbed to their shock by the random acts of violence around him: 9/11, the suicide bombings of 7/7 in London and the more localized terror and violence of local gang, ‘The Pack Crew’. This is pretty much the plot, and it could near enough fit on the back of the man’s now obsolete business card. But the denouement of Rourke’s novel is truly surprising, violent and thrilling; it’s so well orchestrated and shocking that no amount of ennui could make this reviewer lash out and spoil it.
One way to approach The Canal is as a philosophical novel. It is engaged in an examination of the theoretical, social and philosophical implications of boredom. The thesis put into play is that boredom is and can be a positive force, rather than a negative one. It’s a thesis that owes a lot to Bertrand Russell, and to the contemporary philosophers Simon Critchley and Lars Svendsen. Rourke’s novel also bears comparison (in the way it treats boredom) to conceptual artists and writers like Andy Warhol and Kenneth Goldsmith. In the juxtaposition of violence, machinery, detachment and boredom I was reminded of Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster Series’ and in the bored attentiveness of the narrator who deliberately sets himself apart from working life I was reminded of some of Goldsmith’s books, such as Traffic, a concept-poem of typed out New York radio traffic announcements. Warhol, Goldsmith and Rourke have it in common that they embrace boredom, and that they treat it hand-in-hand with machines. The narrator in The Canal muses that boredom is “not really that removed from desire. It seems that they are, in fact, the same urge more or less: the urge to do something.” Certainly, the man’s boredom and his desire seem almost indistinguishable at times. He comes to the bench because he’s bored but he also comes to the bench to see the woman; he hangs around outside her house because he’s bored, but also because he strongly desires her. Rourke wonderfully captures the sticky boredom of desire, of waiting, of uncertainty, of isolation. Aspects of the book seem to set up as a love-story: boy meets girl on bench, while girl is still fascinated by a mysterious man in the office block. Put like that, it sounds almost unbearably pat, and Rourke lets the ghost of that genre hang, like one of the planes his narrator is so fascinated by. But, of course, that isn’t how the novel turns out; instead, it veers off into the mysterious, the tragic and the violent. The canal is also carnal.
I couldn’t help but think that The Canal was also riffing on the thriller genre. The novel is taut and tense throughout. I can imagine if a movie were made there’d be long scenes with nothing happening, so quiet you could hear a pin drop. And the ending is very cinematic: swans, woman, canal, bridge, gang all smashing together in what feels from Rourke’s prose like slow motion, a frame-by-edgy-frame conclusion to his book. I was, in fact, reminded of three films I saw recently. The first is George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing, which also builds up slowly to an inevitably (but not predictably) horrifying conclusion. The other two are films by Harmony Korine. His 2009 film Mister Lonely has one terrifying and violent scene where a nun falls out of a plane while delivering aid parcels. Korine’s new film Trash Humpers picks up similar themes to Rourke’s book; a group of elderly people moves around a neighbourhood, committing random acts of violence and sex, out of boredom. They hump trash, they frighten and corrupt children, they tie dolls to the back of their bicycles and cycle through puddles, the dolls’ heads banging against the ground. Like Rourke, Korine focuses on technology, shooting the film on grainy, droning, fuzzy VHS and using long shots of the ‘gang’ driving around in SUVS. But then again, maybe the last scene feels like a bastardized, violent form of ballet: ‘swan canal’, or something.
I read Rourke’s use of these generic tropes as part of the way his book criticizes society’s inability to accept boredom, the need to turn to vicarious violence and love and sex in films, TV shows, books and websites as a means of coping and trying to beat our own boredom rather than accept it. One particularly revealing passage reads as though its the narrator’s manifesto of boredom:
“Those who are not bored are merely lost in superfluous activity: fashion, lifestyle, TV, drink, drugs, technology, et cetera – the usual things we use to pass the time. The irony being that they are just as bored as I am, only they think they’re not because they’re continually doing something. And what they are doing is battling boredom, which is a losing battle.”
The Canal is one of the most achingly thought-provoking and beautiful books I’ve read recently. It feels right-up-to-the-minute and urgent.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 20th, 2010.