The Canal, by Lee Rourke

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I approached The Canal, a first novel by Lee Rourke, with a very positive going-in point of view, which I think I should disclose up front. Way back in 1979, I spent a full summer in the United Kingdom on a Commonwealth Press Union journalism fellowship. It was both a wonderful and a tedious experience; the memory of it is far better than the living of it was. Events of great interest (an afternoon with Harold Evans, for example, or a day spent listening to the soon-to-be disgraced — and dead — Robert Maxwell) were offset by long periods of utter boredom. We were in London much of the time, billeted in a squalid university dorm just south of Islington.

Lavish banquets and free lunches — not to mention a KfC taste for English bitter and a lot of free time — were taking their toll on the scale, so I had decided to take up jogging in an attempt to stem the weight gain. When we set up camp late in the fellowship in London, it didn’t take me long to discover that the Regent’s Canal was just a few blocks north. Instead of dodging traffic and running lights (both are life-threatening tactics for runners in the London street-level environment), I could jog along uninterrupted on the towpath. Literally, it meant experiencing one of the world’s most vibrant cities not from the ground or the highrises (and we certainly did that), but from the very strange perspective of a quiet, water-centred, badly-littered trench that cut its peaceful, scummy way through the action from Paddington in the west to the Thames in the east.

So when I first came across reviews of The Canal (The Asylum and Just William’s Luck both loved it — it made Will’s 2010 yearend top 10), my first thought was: Hey, that’s my London canal! The wonderful cover of the novel itself brought back decades-old memories of stumbling along (I was a very heavy, neophyte “jogger”, more speeded-up walker than real runner, truth be told) through that unique space.

Rourke’s canal is indeed “my” canal, a mile or two of inner-city water course in both his book and my experience rather than the whole thing, the canal as it passes through Islington and Hackney. This all-too-extended quote which opens the novel is a perfect description of what I experienced, more than three decades ago:

Along the towpath of the canal, halfway between Hackney and Islington, I stopped at a brown bench. It was nestled between two large hedges that had long since overgrown. The towpath was busy with people walking and cycling towards Islington on their way to work. [What -- no joggers!!! Or stumblers] Although I could pretty much see everything from the bench, it was hard for passers-by to see me until they were almost in front of me. It was the perfect spot for me to sit, undisturbed; somewhere I could do nothing and simply watch it all go by. The air was still, silent — I could smell the water. It made me think of the dredgers I used to watch as a child, the hard work they did cleansing the bed of the canal. Behind the bench was the exterior wall of a health centre used by the Packington Road Estate tenants. To the immediate left of this wall, if I faced towards the murky canal, was a rusty iron bridge spray-painted in graffiti — the kind of graffiti the perpetrators must have had to defy gravity to apply — near a new-ish sign that reads: Shepherdess Walk. A tangle of iron railings and fences guarded the bridge from people who thought it might have been a good idea to hurl themselves off it into the canal — probably to spare them from embarrassment, as the drop into the canal wouldn’t lead to their deaths due to it being too short.

I am pretty sure that that is the longest quote that this blog has ever indulged in — and it is less than a quarter of Rourke’s opening ode to the “canal” which is the centrepiece of this book. I admit I had to resist typing Centrepoint just there — the concrete carbunkle that looms over London from just a mile or so away represents everything that the Regent’s Canal of this novel is not, and not just its height. Rourke’s canal is like a magnet for his characters (and there are not many) and it deserves to be recognized as such — not a beacon to chase, but a powerful force that draws in its prey.

They aren’t heading into the “underworld” (that would be the catacombs of the Tube), they are looking for some sort of protected middle space. That includes the novel’s unnamed narrator, who defines his circumstances in a short prologue:

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.

I don’t mean to dispute the novelist on his central theme, but I would have used a different word to describe his character’s condition: “disengagement” (you can see why I am a blogger, not a novelist). He can see part of the world around him from the trench where the canal is located but, by definition, it is a restricted view, and only a view. It demands no personal involvement beyond what he chooses to make on his required or chosen ventures out of the trench of the canal. At this point in his life, that is all that he is up to. For KfC the jogger, the peace of the canal was a temporary escape — for Rourke’s hero, there is the forlorn hope of a more permanent one.

Like all escapes, alas, the canal and its towpath soon acquire real-world elements of their own. There is a mid-rise office building across the canal from the bench and the character not only observes what is happening behind the windows and on the terrace, he enriches his imaginery stories of the people whom he is watching. And there is a gang of ASBO youths, The Pack Crew, who vandalize both the world of the canal and the bigger world above it, a violent link between the two states. And finally there is a young woman who visits the area — and sits on the bench — whom our hero thinks shares his motivation of “boredom” and with whom he strikes up an acquaintance. A business world, a destructive gang world, an individual world — all representative of the options life offers outside the protected seam of the canal.

Obviously, my own experience with the Regent’s Canal affected my response to the novel. I think I can safely say, however, that anyone who has ever been in one of the world’s great cities and wondered what it would be like to be there, not really personally involved with what was happening, but rather a “perfect observer”, even if the lens was restricted, will find this story interesting. I suspect it speaks more to visitors to London than it does to residents — visitors are already somewhat “disengaged” and confused by what is happening.

Then again, if your regular route to work and back home involves travelling along the Embankment — or the Regent’s Canal, or any of London’s other wonderful diversions — you may find that Lee Rourke has painted a very special picture of what it is like to be both “there” and “not there”. He certainly did for me.

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15 Responses to “The Canal, by Lee Rourke”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m glad you liked it Kevin. I was a big fan too. I wrote it up myself here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/the-canal-lee-rourke/ and like Will included it in my yearend list. It’s an excellent achievement, particularly for a first novel.

    While Ballard’s an obvious comparator I did think Rourke found his own voice and the novel has stayed with me. When I had a book cull moving house it survived, which means I think there’s a good chance I’ll want to reread it in future.

    I particularly liked the ASBO group who form a sort of vicious Greek chorus, and the symbolism of the dredgers which seem perpetually delayed but promise to make everything clean and new.

    It came joint winner of the Guardian not-the-booker, despite oddly enough a real campaign against it in the comments from some people who really hated it. Still, it’s a poor novel has nobody hate it.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      That Not The Booker was an extraordinary magnet for all sorts of vitriol and ire: the voting, the rules, the books etc etc.

      I think at least some of the brickbats The Canal attracted were due to the cheerleading of (some) of the book’s supporters, which is understandable (I react to that sort of stuff myself) but not entirely fair if you haven’t read the book.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: My apologies for forgetting that you had reviewed The Canal as well and thanks for the link.

    I can understand why some people would not like it. For me, you really have to appreciate the “in-between” world that Rourke creates (and the ASBO gang bridges both the other worlds). If you don’t like contemplating that kind of space, it is not a very worthwhile novel. On the other hand, I quite appreciated his definition of that space.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Kevin, hello.

    I’m also from canada, and am in canada. I reviewed _The Canal_ here:

    http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-canal-by-lee-rourke

    I also lived in london, from 1987 to late 1989. Didn’t go along the canals much. But I have some memories that are good, and some that are poor. Rourke’s book brought some of them to mind.

    Nice post.

    regards,
    Jeff Bursey,
    author of _Verbatim: A Novel_

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Jeff. Thanks for the link.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    What an enjoyable review, Kevin. I hope you haven’t lost the taste for bitter over the years (I perfer stout myself).

    By focussing on the canal you’ve reminded me of what I really liked about the book, and although there were also things I didn’t like so much I think Rourke has produced something really worthwhile in this. Like Max I’m pretty sure I’ll reread it at some stage.

  6. leroyhunter Says:

    Speaking of Not The Booker: Kevin, it strikes me you’re the only person I can think of who’s read both the joint winners – The Canal and Deloume Road. That puts you in a good position to offer a comparison (if you’d care to)….

  7. kimbofo Says:

    Terrific review, Kevin. Funny how a particular place and time can resonate so strongly when you see it reflected in fiction at a later date.

    Like Max, I read and reviewed this one last year http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2010/09/the-canal-by-lee-rourke.html and it made it into my Top 10 for 2010 too.

    What I liked about this book was its exploration of the link between boredom and violence, and just as serendipity/fate would have it, I ended up reading a string of books in its wake with a similar theme, including John Healey’s memoir “The Grass Arena” and MJ Hyland’s “This is How”.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I would take The Canal over Deloume Road. Hooton’s novel was a fine first effort but I’m afraid the isolated, twisted rural community is simply too frequent a setting for me (it pales in comparison with Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook).

    Rourke, on the other hand, found a highly innovative way to approach his examination of big-city life (because that, for me, was what his novel really was about). Admittedly, the personal connection that I ‘fessed up to probably influenced that judgment.

    Kimbofo: Sorry I overlooked your review and thanks for the link. You are quite right that the boredom/violence theme shows up relatively often — Rourke certainly found a unique way of framing it.

    • kimbofo Says:

      No need to apologise! Can’t expect you to link to every review of The Canal in the blogosphere… you’d lose the will to live after awhile.

  9. Maylin Says:

    Great review Kevin – I came to The Canal in a different way. I read it last fall knowing I was going to London and used it as an excuse (not that I really needed one) to walk along the canal and explore Islington – an area which I’d never walked before. I enjoyed it immensely. I stopped at a canalside cafe along the way and had a latte and lo and behold, a dredger came by! Took a lot of photos and should really write up my review and post them but haven’t found the time yet. Melville has been publishing some interesting “disengagment” fiction. You might enjoy Lars Iyer’s Spurious – another book in which not a whole lot happens, but the characters are “busy” contemplating their lives and their inclinations to do nothing or procrastinate. It has a bit of the same British humour.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maylin: What a great motivation to pick up the book — and I am glad it turned out well. The Canal is a very interesting “space” both in this fiction and in real life.

    Thanks for the recommendation on Spurious. I have not heard about and will do some checking.

  11. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    This is a great post, Kevin. I started this novel while looking for books for my Literary Masters book groups, but put it down because I didn’t think it would work for my groups. Now that I’ve read your post and all these comments, I want to finish it–solely for my own enjoyment.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I don’t think The Canal fits the normal book club model. On the other hand, if you have a group who share the characteristic “frequent visits to London”, it would be ideal. It may all be set beside the Regent’s Canal but the observations extend well beyond that. And, if you happen to do “double” books in your groups, consider pairing it with Edward Docx’s The Calligrapher. I think the Docx is a vastly under-rated book and it too features a canal, albeit one at the western end of this one. Frankly, the Docx is perfect book club reading because it is a very accessible story with a number of different angles — I read it before I started blogging so no opinion on this blog, alas. I am about to start his new one (The Devil’s Garden) and my sneak some comments about The Calligrapher in there.

  13. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    Thanks so much, Kevin! I love recommendations on good books for my groups. I just returned from the library, and I have The Calligrapher in hand. On the back it is compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my favorite books, so I am really looking forward to reading this. Ahhh, if only there were a beach with sunshine nearby…

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