Author, Book review, Fiction, Lee Rourke, literary fiction, London, Melville House, Publisher, Setting

‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke


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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Holland/Netherlands, Joseph O'Neill, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 248 pages; 2009.

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was famously long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )

But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the reviews you’ll see the broad spectrum of views it’s attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.

Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?

Living in the netherland

While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O’Neill’s apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there — the netherland.

For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there’s a lot more going on here than the “gentleman of sport”. Hans is an immigrant — Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He’s desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture.

Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can “connect”, albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn’t a plot spoiler: O’Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)

Disintegration of a marriage

Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of “netherland” residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn’t the sole premise of the book.

O’Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans’ marriage, for while Hans is content to be “carried along by the dark flow of those times” his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it’s a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.

Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven’t had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I’ve found myself thinking about certain elements.

I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts — his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage — and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?

The healing power of cricket

One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the “American way” which meant “the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting”. I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a “friendly”.

We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives — jobs, children, wives, worries — peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city’s ethnic minorities.  “That sounds just like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O’Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I’ve ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you’ve read any of this other titles, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Author, Book review, essays, Martin Amis, Non-fiction, Publisher, Vintage

‘The Second Plane’ by Martin Amis


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2009.

Martin Amis is best known as an English novelist with some 10 titles to his name. But Amis is also a short story writer, literary critic and essayist, and this book comprises a collection of 14 pieces — two short stories, eight essays and four reviews — around the theme of September 11, 2001. These pieces were written between 2001 and 2007, and have been produced in the order in which they were written. Amis says he has added to them, but cut nothing, although he was briefly tempted “to cover my tracks”.

Now, this is where I put up my hand and confess that I’m not well versed in Amis’s work. I read Times Arrow many moons ago and it did not convince me to try any of his other stuff. My sister, who doesn’t read as much as me, enjoyed London Fields, but I’m still not convinced.

Reading this collection I’m still no closer to understanding Amis or what makes him tick other than I now know he’s an atheist turned “weak-agnostic” and he doesn’t think much of Islamists, George Bush or Tony Blair. Join the club.

There’s something about these pieces that seems too dry and too highbrow for one to truly engage with them. At times it felt like I was reading a novelist pretending to be a journalist — and on that basis, he fails, because there’s too much style and too many literary flourishes getting in the way of the facts.

A case in point. Or four cases in point, actually. He reviews three books and one movie — United 93 directed by Paul Greengass; The Looming Tower: Al Quaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright; State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward; America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn; and The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain — in this collection and with the exception of the book by Steyn, whom he describes as an “oddity” who “writes like a maniac”, I’m not really clear where he stands on them: did he like them or not? In many ways, he simply summarises the contents, adds his two-bits worth on the subject and refuses to tell us what he really thinks of the works in question.

So, putting aside the reviews, how do the other pieces fare? By far the best piece here is his opening essay entitled The Second Plane which was first published in The Guardian just seven days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is raw emotion here and a desperate attempt at comprehending the incomprehensible. (In his author’s note at the start of the book Amis describes the piece as “hallucinatory” because it was “fevered by shock and by rumour”.) But it’s the opening sentences that really sets the scene, for this short chapter as well as the book as a whole:

It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.

In The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, first published in The Guardian in 2002, he makes a salient claim, later championed by many others, that the event had brought literature to its knees. He argues that “many novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11” because “they were playing for time”. I think, in this instance, he may be right.

I think he’s also right about a lot of the stuff in the rest of this essay, not the least his theory that religion is a sham.

… religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful. It is straightforward — and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.

Similarly, The Wrong War — written in March 2003, before the invasion of Iraq — is a strong piece about how America is “behaving like someone still in shock” and that the “axis of evil” is a theological construct invented by Bush because it “makes him feel easier about being intellectually null”.

As you can see, Amis doesn’t pull his punches. But what he says makes sense.

I especially like his claim that the Coalition planned to go to war because there was a lack of weapons of mass destruction, not the other way around:

The surest way by far of finding out what Iraq has is to attack it. Then at last we will have Saddam’s full cooperation in our weapons inspection, because everything we know about him suggests that he will use them all. The Pentagon must be more or less convinced that Saddam’s WMDs are under a certain critical number. Otherwise it couldn’t attack him.

On the whole this is an interesting collection, although it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know or haven’t come to figure out on your own. But what it does do is provide an insight into a dreadful time in our recent history and shows how the public realm has been shaped and altered by terrorism and war.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Mohsin Hamid, New York, Penguin, Setting

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 209 pages; 2008.

Visit any bookstore in London right now and it’s hard to miss the displays of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist — it seems to be everywhere. The careful positioning of it — especially on the “3 for 2” tables — obviously works, because against my better judgment I recently bought a copy and devoured it in one sitting. Easy enough to do, actually, because at just 209 pages and typeset in a relatively large font, this is more a novella than a novel, and hence it’s a very quick read.

An international bestseller that has been translated into some 16 languages, The Reluctant Fundamentalist has also been shortlisted for a host of literary awards including the Man Booker Prize 2007, the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2007 and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2008. But it has also attracted much flak centered around its alleged anti-American stance (it’s no plot spoiler to say that the main character smiles when he sees the collapse of the World Trade Towers on TV, pleased because “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”).

This is shallow criticism, because the book’s greatest failing is not its content, but the way in which the story is narrated. This is a fictional account of a young, intelligent and ambitious Pakistani who is educated at Princeton University and secures a highly desirable job in New York. When he falls in love with a troubled rich white girl he begins to realise that her material trappings cannot alleviate her pain.

Then, following the attacks on the World Trade Centre, when the entire city is in mourning, he begins to question the purpose of his own life and the Western values that leave him feeling so cold, detached and unfulfilled. He returns to Lahore, and it is here that his story begins: a first-person narrative that is addressed to an unseen acquaintance (effectively you, the reader) in a little cafe as dusk descends.

It is this narrative device that I found particularly troublesome. The tone of the voice is cool, arrogant and slightly menacing, which is fine. But every now and then the narrative flow is interrupted by rather clunky direct addresses to the unseen acquaintance — “But observe! A flower seller approaches. I will summon him to our table. You are not in the mood? Surely you cannot object to a single strand of jasmine buds.” — which act as unwanted reminders that you are reading a book which means you can never fully lose yourself in the story.

This is a great shame, because it’s a good story about an issue not much discussed in popular literature, that of the foreign man who’s turned his back on the American dream. If nothing else it’s a thought-provoking read and would certainly make great fodder for a book group discussion, but on the whole I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist disappointing and nowhere near as exciting or as provocative as I had been lead to believe. And the conclusion, which is as predictable as they come, left me feeling like I’d been terribly short-changed.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Frédéric Beigbeder, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Windows on the World’ by Frédéric Beigbeder


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 312  pages; 2005. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

Windows on the World won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2005, but this book could just have easily won a non-fiction award too.

This is because the chapters of this brutally searing book alternate between reality and imagination, so what you get is three stories in one:

  • the factual account of what happened the day that two planes deliberately slammed into New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001;
  • the fictional account of a divorced father trapped in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of Tower One with his two young sons at the time of the attack; and
  • the author’s own personal memoir about the event and its aftermath a year after it happened.

Strangely enough, despite being written by a Frenchman, it is also a homage to America and how the terrorist attack sowed doubt into the American dream for the first time.

Harrowing experience

I won’t pretend that reading this book is not a harrowing experience, because it is. We all know what happened that day and we can all recall where we were and what we were doing. It is indelibly etched on our brains forever.

The beauty of Windows on the World is its attempt to put that event into some kind of context, to try and make sense out of something that is incomprehensible.

But for many people this book will be too painful to read — Beigbeder makes no apologies for this. “I truly don’t know why I wrote this book,” he says towards the end.”Perhaps because I couldn’t see the point of speaking of anything else. What else is there to write? The only interesting subjects are those that are taboo. We must write what is forbidden.”

He also goes on to say that he is fully aware that his prose “takes on a power that it would not otherwise have. This novel uses tragedy like a literary crutch”.

Beautiful prose

But what beautiful prose it is. Make no mistake, Beigbeder writes eloquently and sensitively without resorting to exploitation or voyeurism or sadistic pleasure. And he throws in enough black humour to stop the book from wallowing in terminal despair.

There is a frank, candid nature to his writing, which at times, is painful to read, not because it hones in on the terrible events of that day, but because it illuminates the author’s own dark soul (for example, his weakness for sex, his hatred of his own narcissistic tendencies, his inability to hold down a proper relationship).

At various times the writing reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk (in its ability to capture the surreal horror of it all), Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (in its sometimes dark, detached narrative quality) and Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations for the Plague (in its depiction of an apocalyptic terrorist attack).

All in all, Windows on the World is a fascinating book that refuses to be boxed into one particular genre. It disorientates the reader, takes them back in time and poses questions we’d rather not have asked. But despite the morbid subject matter one comes to the last page feeling, not down and depressed, but somewhat hopeful for the future.

Author, Book review, Lisa Williams, memoir, Non-fiction

‘Letters to Virginia Woolf’ by Lisa Williams


Nonfiction – paperback; Hamilton Books; 92 pages; 2005. Review copy courtesy of the author.

This is a book that defies classification: is it a memoir, a meditation on Virginia Woolf, an anti-war manifesto or a feminist text? The short answer is that it is a combination of all of these, but it’s also a testimony about life and survival in difficult times.

I am not a Woolf scholar, so I was not sure what to expect from this book. It is not something that would normally appear on my radar.

But it is so beautifully written and so deeply personal that it is hard not to be affected by it. Despite reading it in one short sitting, I was surprised to find myself thinking about it several days later.

Williams opens this lyrical first-person narrative with her experiences in New York on the day that terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Centre.

“The future would be forever stained by the vision of those flames devouring the World Trade Centre towers, those flames burning up those lives ended so abruptly, robbed of the future that was due them,” she writes.

And, as she watches her young son play in the sandpit of a local playground on 9/11, she adds: “And yet it was the children that day who took a defiant stance against terror. While the rest of us waded through a vague and undetermined sense of dread, the children played on, refusing for now, to give up their short-lived innocence.”

From such horrific events, Williams begins to acknowledge that life, often fragile and tenuous,  is forever changed in ways that are beyond our control. And, in a series of moving, heart-felt and deeply personal letters to Virginia Woolf, she explores the notion of lost innocence, using Woolf’s ideas about war, memory and childhood as a catalyst.

In just 78 short pages, Williams regales us with vignettes and stories about love and loss, terror and pain as they relate to her. Most of these are deeply personal memories relating to her “coming of age” – her parent’s divorce, her mother’s remarriage, teenage love affairs, her role in the anti-Vietnam movement and, perhaps most telling of all, her heart-wrenching experiences of fertility treatment. As she exorcises these ghosts of the past, she pays homage to many of Woolf’s troubled characters (especially Septimus from Mrs Dalloway) and, importantly, to Woolf herself, who could not write about the body.

Above all, I think the one thing that really shines through Williams’ short book is this: her appreciation of life’s wonder in all its complexity and fragility. This contrasts nicely with Woolf’s desire to preserve it (under the dictum “a common interest unites us: it is one world, one life”) and the terrorists’ desire to take it away.