The Canal by Lee Rourke. Melville House. 199pp., $14.95.
Lee Rourke’s The Canal is a short novel that contains a great deal. The constant image of dredgers cleaning up the canal that the male narrator, and the female who he wants to become friendly with, spend a lot of time looking into could be likened to what Rourke is doing. He’s exploring the soul of two people, one more successfully imagined than the other, while also leaving much of their lives out of the picture. The result is that their own personalities are there, like sketches, but what they stand for takes greater precedence.
The plot is simple. A lone male, financially well off enough to quit working due to the tedium of his job, starts to visit a bench near one of the canals in a borough of London where he sits for a long time doing what comes naturally to Englishmen: bird-spotting. In time, strangers come along, such as the beggar woman who smells of urine and repeats, over and over, “Do you like the canal, then?”; another is a one-armed man who talks of his travels in China, Russia, and Afghanistan (an invocation of Blaise Cendrars, the Swiss writer who Rourke, like this reviewer, admires); there is the gang of youths named The Pack Crew; there is a couple who don’t come to the bench but who are seen from it, since they occupy an office building in the other side of the canal; and there is the unnamed woman who complicates everything. She and the man discuss their past lives—she more than he, but in a very narrow way, without exchanging names—and while they don’t have a romantic relationship, they do bond, for a time. The novel ends with loss and a closure of the arc through the removal of the bench.
Rourke draws the male character with care. We learn about the philosophy of his life, as well as his nervousness, the jactitation of his leg, his social isolation from male contemporaries, and his growing hunger to better know the woman even though it’s almost immediately clear she’s trouble. At first he looks forward to seeing her and resuming their elliptical conversations, then he obsesses over her, even following her home when she leaves her purse behind and he discovers her identity. This figure never quite blossoms into a character. She is a type on purpose, not through failure on Rourke’s part, and is kin to the women in noir films and detective novels whose oddity and unconventionality throw others—usually men—into confusion. But then, to know more about her would remove the mystery, and without that there would be no tension in the book.
Tension is the opposite of boredom, and boredom is what The Canal ostensibly is about. “It seems that boredom is not really that removed from desire,” says the narrator. “It seems that they are, in fact, the same urge more or less: the urge to do something. It seems that the same common denominator underpins them: existence. And existence is essentially prolonged boredom.” Events that the narrator occasionally recalls from his past are rarely boring: a frightening climb, bullying by a gang (both incidents involving his brother), and so on have emotional resonance for the narrator. His conversations with the woman are filled with reported incident, but it’s her narrative, and personality, that the narrator finds exciting as well as enticing. We can view this as a type of blindness to the drama in his life: his stories are compellingly told, and couldn’t come out that way if they were banal. Their vivid nature refutes his theory of boredom. But such emotional evidence, so to speak, is powerless against the strength of his thoughts (his intellect). “I liked being bored—I liked what it was doing to me.” He likes being at the mercy or in the power of something or someone. This passivity takes in the woman’s effect on him, and it stays in place even when he is beaten by The Pack Crew, though in that case it’s out of fear of a worse beating if he resists. His new seat mate is more active, but feels the tug of boredom, too. She has fought against it in her own way.
With her story, of killing a complete stranger with her car and driving away unseen, we are brought to what I think is the real substance of The Canal. The woman is attached to her car, whose make is very specifically given as an Audi TT 225 Quattro Coupe that’s “able to explode from zero to sixty in six point six seconds flat.” It’s what she used to run down the man whose son they see working in the building across the canal. She continues: “we are technology—we rival nature. We are able to mould ourselves into something superior.” It doesn’t take long for this delight in machinery to turn into a discussion of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, where the woman reveals her fascination with the suicide bombers. “Who else would physically turn themselves into a machine primed for mass destruction? These are extraordinary people to me, ordinary people transformed . . .” They occupy a higher plane than her vehicular manslaughter allows her to inhabit. The narrator can’t believe what she’s saying, and argues with her in this “horrific conversation,” that, nevertheless, brings him “closer to her.” She gives her argument as to why the suicide bombers did what they did: “There’s nothing left to believe in anymore. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real. It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts. They have nothing else to do. We are empty. You know that . . .” To which the narrator replies: “Yes, I do. . . . Everything is boring.”
I find this and similar conversations to be the true substance of the book, as if the boredom aspect is a device to get us into the mind of someone, in this case a woman, who can equate her car’s explosive power with a bomb, yet view the suicide bombers, or terrorists, as elevated beings. While travelling the Tube in London in the late 1980s I noticed signs warning passengers about suspicious packages left unattended. Eventually a complacency set in, masked as a realistic assessment of probabilities, that the IRA wouldn’t be involved in a brown paper bag that looked like it had a bottle in it, or a new-looking briefcase resting under a seat. Most likely people on 7 July 2005 felt the same thing, up until the first detonation that morning.
CCTV cameras, which the narrator wishes were present on the canal, give London the air of a city under control, with everyone’s safety secured (their civil liberties come in a distant second). Or so it seems. The narrator would like them to be focused on the canal so that they’d catch The Pack Crew engaged in vandalism—throwing motor scooters into the water, using a bow and arrow on the two swans that live there (mythic associations Rourke also touches on). At the same time, he knows that the young gang members video their acts on a mobile phone. They are as attached to the power in this technology as the woman to her car and the suicide bombers to their explosives.
This seemingly “beautifully hollow” woman later describes dreaming of the bombers: “I touch the explosives, I’m there during the bomb-making process. I help them put it together, I help them fit it into the rucksack, I help them put it on. I caress the material . . .” With these words we suddenly know where we are, and everything clicks into place. The old man with his walk-on part who speaks of revolutionary and war-like places, coupled with this woman’s violent streak, her desire for death (“Because I want to die. Because I hate myself.”), and the idolization of the terrorists brings to mind Cendrars’ novel about anarchism, revolution, and mass killings, Moravagine (1926), a brilliant and under-rated work about two madmen, one an insane killer, the other his abettor and chronicler. The relevance of the topics in that book to our world has been modified by Rourke to suit the contemporary world and the stunted emotional nature of those who believe there is nothing to live for. While the narrator can’t recognize the faults in his own thinking until late in the novel (“I was bored of boredom,” he finally realizes), the woman projects her emptiness onto the self-described “soldiers.” If she can’t find anything worth living for, then they can’t; if she wishes to merge with a machine, then they must share that motivation. In her mind, the murderous impulse and sheer spontaneity of her act links her to those who, as she puts it, “‘are pure machine.’” Such is the nature of the narcissist, to see himself reflected in others. The two people who look at the scummy water of the canal enact another myth: they fall in love with their images and their ways of thinking. The spell of self-enchantment is broken for one of them.
Early in the novel the narrator speaks of the cleaning operation being carried out along the canals, and specifically the one between Hackney and Islington. “I wanted to see them, the dredgers. I wanted to see them in action. I wanted to see what they might find buried in the thick sludge. I got up off the bench and walked to the bank. I peered down. I couldn’t even see my own reflection in the water—let alone what was down there, below the surface.” There is more to the narrator than he is able to see in the beginning, which the novel goes on to show, and more to The Canal than one review can tell.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, will be released by Enfield & Wizenty this fall.
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