Lee Rourke’s debut novel is one of those books I knew I had to read. I’d been meaning to get his collection of stories, Everyday, which was praised by trustworthy sources. When I discovered that his novel was to be published by the reliable Melville House, that sealed the deal.
The Canal is a novel about boredom which, through some alchemy, manages never to be boring, even when it seems to aim that way. The language used by its nameless narrator is plain, even deliberately banal.
It was good sitting there, watching the world go by – saying nothing, doing nothing. It was really good.
‘There’ is a bench by a canal in North London, where our narrator, like Reger in Old Masters, goes regularly to sit. (“I’ve often thought that we seek reality in places and not in ourselves.”) The location is grounded in reality but anonymous, specific but vague. The canal is a place defined by function but largely unvisited; blank but threatening. Unlike Reger, our man is not contemplating a work of art but the routines of life, and he is filled not with splenetic rage but with apathy and even a sort of pleasure at the littleness of his existence.
I liked being bored – I liked what it was doing to me. The word “boring” is usually used to denote a lack of meaning – an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible – it had meaning.
People who embrace boredom, he suggests, avoid becoming “lost in superfluous activity,” like the multitudes who “are just as bored as I am, only they think they’re not because they’re continually doing something.” He embraces his boredom so enthusiastically – if that’s the word – that he gives up his job. “I am bored with work full stop. Not your company, but work.” Like Melville’s Bartleby, he would prefer not to. His rewards are the mesmeric routines of existence by the canal: the swans; the building overlooking his bench, with the office workers who never look out; and a mysterious young woman who joins him and with whom he strikes up a rapport.
Violence enters the narrator’s longed-for stasis as he is confronted by a group of youths. Like many elements of The Canal, these encounters recur and rerun, the teen argot of the attackers becoming a sort of unmusical overture, repeated from four angles each time. The threatening atmosphere they bring with them is present too in the subdued violence of the young woman the narrator befriends. She tells stories of her experiences, of mechanised killing which recalls a Ballardian worldview.
And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will becoming increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot ignore.
These worthwhile touchstones – Ballard, Melville, Bernhard – do not mean that The Canal has no identity of its own. In fact it is an idiosyncratic book which is likely to linger in memory whatever the reader makes of it. It has teasings of traditional novelistic concerns, but delivered in a welter of blank style, forceful repetitions, naturalistic blunted dialogue, and ready-made controversies like the woman’s paean to suicide bombers (“They … excite … me”). This last is not lazy tabloid-baiting but ties in with the book’s theme, the dangers of unaccepted boredom:
“It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts. They have nothing else to do. We are empty.”
What these elements mean is that The Canal is a novel which forces the reader to engage with the book on its own terms. In a world where many books conform to expectations and run in the ruts of their predecessors, this is an unsettling and at times confounding experience. Like many of the books I recommend these days, it is likely that The Canal will not please everyone – but what worthwhile book does? Nonetheless, its rarity, its persistence – its brevity – make it a valuable addition to that shelf of books which tackle real life, our daily existence, head-on, rather than wrapping it in the distracting ribbons of so much fiction.