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Thursday, 9 September 2010

'the space where things can happen'


The Canal 
by Lee Rourke

Before I begin to review this book can we just take a moment to appreciate the cover. Is it not a thing of beauty? There have been some pretty snazzy books and even proofs this year but it takes a book like this to remind you that excellent design needn't involve transparent dustjackets, embossing or foiling to make an impact. The brilliant marriage of text and image on this book makes it one of the best I've seen this year. The contents match up too because in his debut novel (after a story collection called Everyday) Rourke has managed to write a book about boredom which is never boring, a book set in a single specific location that manages to be about urban spaces just about anywhere, and a book that crucially makes the reader feel that they are reading something about now. You don't need to be anywhere near the Regent's Canal in Hackney to appreciate a story of a man who commits himself to his boredom, struggles to connect with a woman (who has her own modern-isms) and is shaken by an act of violence.

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don't. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things - even if that something is nothing.

So speaks the novel's protagonist and so he does. He walks to the canal and plonks himself on a bench there. Opposite him is a whitewashed office block where he can observe the movements of a male worker as he potters from his desk to that of a colleague and back again, several times a day. Our protagonist has a job himself that he gradually neglects in favour of returning to his spot on the canal, eventually writing a letter of resignation so that he can commit himself fully to his boredom. It isn't solitude that he craves; as well as the office workers he watches the coots and swans that float on the canal, he longs for the dredger to come and clear away the scum and detritus that pollutes their water.

The word "boring" is usually used to denote a lack of meaning - an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn't empty of anything; it was tangible - it had meaning.

Then he is joined on his bench by a woman with whom he strikes up faltering conversation. Her dismissiveness and reticence only increase his obsession with her as he probes further to try and know and understand more about her.

Little things about her began to pour into me - little by little I was beginning to see who she really was. At least that's how it felt. And the less she said the more I understood. That's how it was. And her lessness made it all the more terrifying.

There are two things that she wants to talk to him about, to confess if you like, the first of these her love for cars. Love isn't too strong a word for a woman who will instantly have the reader thinking of J G Ballard when she explains the simplicity of her affinity ('We were fused: my self... my car... fused. Atomised.') and that comparison continues as she expounds on her view and begins to talk about her fascination and excitement with suicide bombers. That may sound a little sensational there but it never feels it. Our narrator is disgusted and uncomprehending for us whilst she explains the link between her twin obsessions

"When the bomber sets off in either their designated car, van truck... whatever... when they attach their explosive belt and set of towards their pre-planned target, they are transformed, they are extraordinary... They are pure machine."
When I talk about this book being about the world we live in now that isn't simply because it mentions the July 7th London bombings but because it taps into our collective response to them. When she describes the CCTV footage of them as 'so modern, so normal', I know exactly what that means.

'They looked so real, there is nothing untoward in their actions prior to the catastrophe. Then they became those extraordinary beings...Yet in those images there's no intimation that they were about to transform themselves. They were completely part of the ebb and flow of the city, walking into that railway station, not once looking out of place.'

The normality of terror, or the terror of normality. There's something very modern about that as a concept (and different from the banality of evil) and it feeds back into the exploration of boredom in the novel. Our narrator is terrorised too by a gang of local kids whose verbal attacks are brilliantly written as a choral assault, their four voices coming always together.

"What you doing, man?"
"What you up you, 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 battyboy, man?"
"Are you battyboy, innit?"
"Are you battyboy?"
"Battyboy, man?"

Like here, Rourke's ear for dialogue is brilliant most of the time, only occasionally straying in the more formal discussions between the man and woman on the bench, and the gang continue to haunt him through the book, a sense of potential danger always palpable. For a book about a man sitting on a bench there is a surprising amount of incident that I don't want to spoil here, what I've wanted to highlight is the strength of the writing (hence the copious quotation for which I apologise - and it isn't over yet) and indeed the concept and thought behind it. For all the obvious influences (Ballad already mentioned, Beckett another, John Self mentions Melville's Bartleby and there is plenty of other august company) Rourke fashions something clearly his own in prose that avoids embellishment and yet somehow manages to dazzle and impress all the more for it. People often talk about the world that the author creates and one of the most striking things about this book is the way that Rourke manages to make a humble urban canal a place both mundane and dreamlike, beautiful and terrifying, safe and dangerous and perhaps either real or unreal. In this fictional context I heartily recommend you visit the canal yourself, bored or not. The last time I felt this excited about a debut novel it was a small book called Remainder by Tom McCarthy and The Canal is already building up a similar cult following of enthusiasts (in fact they were part of a small hoo-ha over at the Guardian recently). This isn't just about cult appeal though. Writers like McCarthy and Rourke are doing something bold, thoughtful and interesting with fiction that demands attention, using what recently has become the domain of decorative storytelling and making it a space where other things can happen.

I've often thought that we seek reality in places and not ourselves. These places can be anywhere we like them to be: a desert island, the beach, a nightclub, in the arms of a lover in a far-off land, rock climbing, up in the clouds, down in the depths of the deepest ocean, in space - ultimately in space. These places, this space, can be anything we want it to be. We need things, extra things that help us to make sense of it all; we need the space where things can happen, where these spaces can become a thing - it is only at that point, when space becomes a thing to us, that we truly feel real.

7 comments:

winstonsdad 9 September 2010 at 17:38  

beckett struck me when I read synopsis of this book ,sometimes the simplest story idea can be the most exciting ,sebalds books had this rings of saturn is a walk and talk between two guys yet is one of the best books ever written ,before sunset is just two people chatting and walking yet is one of my all time favourtie films ,this book sounds wonderful and I will get to it hopefully at some point ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 9 September 2010 at 18:26  

Thanks for the comment, Stu. Rings of Saturn is on my list, as is the rest of Sebald, I really should get on that. I've never seen Before Sunset even though I know it's supposed to be great. Better get on that too. There's definitely some Beckett about this book but as John Self and I have said, this is a book that is enhanced by its influences rather than buried by them. I hope you enjoy it when the time comes.

kimbofo 12 September 2010 at 19:46  

Snap! I've just reviewed this, and am now catching up on my RSS feeds after a week in the Lake District sans computer and mobile phone!

I thought this book was quite profound in telling us about the way we live our lives in 21st century Britain.

I've not read any Ballard, so I can't tell you whether the story is "Ballardian" but the prose style definitely reminded me of Magnus Mills in its dull, banal tone.

William Rycroft 12 September 2010 at 20:58  

Welcome back Kim. I hope you had a great time in the Lake District. Time there away from computers and phones sounds like bliss to me. I'm glad you liked this book too, I've been telling others about it and will be making a gift of it to someone who lives not far from where it's set. A book highly relevant about today which has the potential to remain relevant far beyond that. I look forward to reading your review.

Max Cairnduff 21 September 2010 at 11:51  

I'm glad you took to it William. Your thoughts are similar to mine. Interestingly, over at mine Leroy Hunter posted a number of criticisms which make for a nice counterview. One of those was about whether the influences enhanced or overwhelmed.

The comparison with McCarthy intrigues me. Remainder is something I hope to get to soon. I hope I'm similarly excited.

On a vaguely related note, I've had a copy of Berg by Ann Quin turn up. Lee Rourke recommended it as a big influence on his so it might be worth checking out.

Amy 22 November 2010 at 02:28  

Saw your comment on the Mobylives post re: The Canal. Very nice blog. I thoroughly enjoyed The Canal too...It's a frequent gift for me for people that are more cerebral and complicated than they'd like us to think! I really enjoyed the feel of quiet and contemplation...full of images yet never hectic or overdone.

William Rycroft 22 November 2010 at 09:19  

Hi Amy, thanks for coming by. It's interesting you mention buying it as a gift for people as I've just done exactly that for someone who lives in the area in which the book is set. I'm hoping they will see that area in a whole new light after reading the book.

I love books that make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Living Nowhere by John Burnside does something similar to the industrial landscape of Corby, something he takes even further in the fable-like Glister.

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