Fiction – paperback; Melville House Publishing; 224 pages; 2010.
I first heard about Lee Rourke’s The Canal on John Self’s Asylum. John’s review indicated that it was a novel about boredom, and having grown up with the edict that “intelligent people never get bored” I was intrigued to see how it was possible to write a story about this subject that wasn’t — how should I say this? — boring.
Indeed, I’m happy to report that The Canal, easily consumed in a few sittings, is the least boring novel I have read in a long while. I found it so thought-provoking that I committed what I regard as a cardinal sin, as far as books are concerned, and defaced every second or third page by underlining entire passages and scribbling notes in the margins.
Admittedly the narrative style may not be for everyone, because it initially comes across as being rather dull and repetitive, a style I assume Rourke employed deliberately given the subject matter. I was immediately reminded of Magnus Mills‘ narrative voice and found it comforting rather than frustrating.
The story is a simple one, about a man who gives up his job in order to wallow in boredom of his choosing. He does this by sitting on a brown bench beside a murky canal in North London and watches the world — mainly cyclists and pedestrians using the towpath, swans and Canada geese on the water, workers in the ugly office building on the opposite bank — passing by.
I liked my spot across from the flat-screen monitors and superfluous balconies. 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 precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible — it had meaning.
Much of the story is written stream-of-consciousness style as the man takes in his surroundings and ponders the meaning of the universe. As you would expect, there is relatively little action (or, indeed plot), but the novel works by creating moments of high tension in stark contrast to the “boring” nature of the narrator’s first-person voice. Chief among these is the arrival of two “outsiders”: the first, an attractive woman who joins him on the bench, and reluctantly becomes a part of his new “boring” world; and the second, a group of menacing teenagers, who threaten his personal safety, on more than one occasion.
Indeed, it’s the arrival of the teenage hoodlums — the Pack Crew from a neighbouring council estate — that throws up several intriguing ideas about boredom that Rourke explores over the course of his novel. One, is the link between boredom and violence, and the second is the link between boredom and acting impulsively.
I’ve always been able to understand impulse. It is something that is instantly recognisable to me. It is something tangible, that I have felt, intrinsically, throughout my life. Even as a young child I understood impulse. I understood that there were no real reasons to my actions, as much as anyone else’s. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a violent man, but, on impulse, I have acted violently.
Rourke takes this notion further by drawing comparisons with 21st century terrorism (the 9/11 terror attacks and the 7/7London bombings are recurring themes), by suggesting that terrorism is nothing more than acts of bored violence. “They [the terrorists] have nothing else to do. We are empty.”
Rourke makes many other highly astute observations that reveal so much about the ways in which we lead our urbanised, technology-dependent, work-dominated lives. He constantly hones in on the ways in which technology is a threat, not a savior (in one scene the narrator compares the canal dredger to a “monster from the deep, like it was about to come back to life and terrorise us all”) and how we waste our lives at work, missing the small things (such as the flight of a swan lifting off from the canal) that gives meaning, and joy, to our existence.
There are recurring metaphors about nature surviving in the face of urban development — urban foxes on the towpath, the beautiful waterfowl swimming on the ugly canal — and how there is no escaping the encroachment of traffic, because even in the most desolate of locations the sky above is still filled with helicopters and aeroplanes.
I could go on… but I won’t. Needless to say, The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.