An Interview with Lee Rourke
Lee Rourkeís first novel, The Canal, was published earlier this year by Melville House. Heís the author of a short story collection, Everyday, and he also happens to be a literary critic who writes for The Guardian, The Independent, and other publications. Heís also contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and blogs for Sponge! He lives in London.
The Canal touches on a lot of issues despite the brevity of the book. At the heart of the novel is the question of boredom: what does boredom mean? What path can boredom take us down? As the two characters sit on a bench overlooking a canal and get to know one another, the reader becomes more and more familiar with the mysteries of their stories.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him via email, after hosting him for an event at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Rourke is a charming man who also happens to be extremely intelligent and (surprise!) well-read. We spoke about boredom, swans, canals, and mythology.
What made you decide to write a book about boredom?
I suppose that boredom, not just as a literary subject, fascinates me, and I find boredomís potential endless. Anything can happen within the clutches of boredom -- even if that means absolutely nothing happens (which, for me at least, is something). Boredom is the great opener of possibilities, the maddening gateway into the gaping void: the state of being where things, including ourselves, can be observed in minute detail. The trouble is, boredom forces most of us to do the opposite, it forces us to deny this gaping void and fill our time doing things in order to keep nothingness at bay. For me this is (a) a real shame and (b) the cause of much friction and frustration.
I wanted to write a novel that attempts to philosophically address these points as I see them. Boredom is quite a modern word, and it is tied in with modernity and the rise of technology (and technologyís effect upon us). We have arrived at a point of departure: technology is leaving us behind. Weíre in constant thrall, either waiting to be used by technology or desperately trying to catch up with it. Boredom is the realization of an acute emptiness caused by this widening void. We once thought -- now that God is dead -- the rise of machines and technology offered us the potential to become God, a form of transcendence we have always wanted to achieve, but due to technologyís meteoric rise throughout modernity this is now a flagrant impossibility because of the distance between us. Thereís nowhere for us to go now. We are stranded. We have been marooned. My novel, The Canal, is a summation of this sense of dread: this slow realization that things, everything, is speeding up and moving away from us. We have been left with the inability to deal with what this distance creates within us: boredom. As our world becomes increasingly more boring (and the gulf between us and technology widens) it will inevitably become more violent -- due to our inability to embrace this boredom. I guess The Canal is a direct response to this sense of dread.
Thereís a lot of repetition in the book. You use the same sentence over and over again. Does this have to do with the monotony of boredom, or something else?
I see everything as repetition -- especially art. I was educated in the west which repeats the languages of antiquity, in a language (English in my instance) that was passed on and spoken by others before me -- I am merely repeating things passed down to me on a daily basis. Even the narratives that underpin everything we rely on culturally and artistically have already been invented, articulated and expressed by the Greeks and many other cultures before us and them. Nothing is original. Nothing is authentic. Iím not interested in authenticity in this respect -- at all -- Iím mostly interested in the repetition of art through narrative, or the symbolic order. The most we can do is acknowledge we are repeating things whilst trying to fuck the same things up a little at the same time.
Iím good friends with the novelist Tom McCarthy and we often meet for lunch and heíll often say things to me like: you know, Lee, as novelists weíre only plugging into signals, tuning in to listen to whatís already there. This sort of thing makes perfect sense to me. So within The Canal I openly acknowledge my debt to what already exists.
Iím also aware that everything is construct, fiction isnít real, even the realities around us arenít real (they are orchestrated for us via the mediation of TV and advertising, et cetera) and because of this all novels fail when they openly try to replicate reality through the mediation of "the novel." In my daily life I donít walk around thinking in beautifully crafted sentences, I donít take in my environment in one long, beautifully descriptive passage -- I repeat things, I see things in messy, jumbled fragments that are often hard to process right away... over and over again. In this respect, William Burroughsís cut-ups are a closer iteration of reality than, say, the meticulously crafted fiction of Ian McEwan. I guess the repetitions found in The Canalís structure are a manifestation of these myriad everyday, over-lapping and jumbled-up fragments. The novelist John Wray hit the nail on the head when he said that The Canal is a "story assembled from everyday objects" -- thatís the best summation I can think of.
The narrator and the woman he spends time with at The Canal are both unnamed in the book. What was the reason for the anonymity?
Again, I was aware they are just characters in a novel. I was uncomfortable giving them names -- I wanted them to impart a wider meaning and eschew the sense of self that we as readers are told we constantly yearn; you know, the mode of established literary fiction where we see ourselves mirrored back to us in some self-congratulatory mish-mash of plot and characterization. That would have been too closed, or too restrictive. In keeping them nameless -- and away from any notion of the self -- I guess they can be anyone, or anything. Anonymity is a powerful thing, it keeps you away from the crowd, when you are anonymous you can observe things better, or clearer. The Canal is essentially a novel of observation, not only the charactersí own within it, but The Canal itself is a novel which also looks inwards from afar: it is a novel which observes itself as a novel within a world made up of other novels.
Swans form an important piece of imagery in this novel. Can you talk about the role they play in your book?
Oh, I love swans so much. When I see a swan on the Regentís canal in London itís quite hard for me not to be affected by the stark juxtaposition of beauty and environment, I mean they are just brilliantly, beautiful creatures and I always want to say to them: what are you doing here? Why here? Of all the places for you to live your life, why the Regentís canal?
But seriously, swans figure symbolically throughout the novel. I am interested in the myth of Leda and the Swan in its various interpretations (there is much Greek myth interwoven within the structure of The Canal, for instance and returning to your earlier question, if I was to give the woman in The Canal a name it would have to be Cassandra). Apart from the beauty of the swan and Ledaís naked form portrayed in the Hellenistic Reliefs, or†da Vinciís paintings, it is a rather brutal myth, and one that forewarns a major catastrophe (catastrophe is something that hangs above The Canal like a phantasm). Leda was Tyndareusís wife, a Spartan king, although this was never enough. There was always the suspicion that Leda wanted to transcend this position. When Zeus, in the guise of a swan commits his despicable act upon Leda, she is yielded by him four eggs and is given god-like status. She gives birth to Castor, Polydeukes, Clytemnestra and most importantly Helen. An act of violence, not only rape, but fratricide (many Reliefs depict the siblings attacking each other), begets the bigger catastrophe: the act of genocide committed in the Trojan war. I am interested in Yeatsís reading of this myth in his poem "Leda and the Swan" -- it is a poem that underpins the whole of my writing of The Canal. Yeatsís poem can be read as a completion of image, taking in and re-processing the various iterations of this myth over many epochs. Yeats takes the image back to antiquity, back to the myth. In "Leda and the Swan" Yeats says: "A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead." Not only is he returning the image back to violence, but also back to myth -- where it belongs -- away from beauty and form.
I wanted to repeat this completion of image in my own iteration of Leda and the Swan as myth within The Canal. There is a sense of the unknown in The Canal, a sense that the actions inside the novel are a signal to an impending catastrophe. The woman is fully aware of this; she forewarns the man right at the beginning when they first meet. It takes the man right up until the dramatic conclusion to work out exactly what it is she means. Like Cassandra she is misunderstood, or more directly he refuses to believe what it is she is saying. Yet, there is always something to reveal. In messing around with this myth in The Canal I am hoping to reveal to the reader a mythical past that is our continual present.
At one point in the book, you write, ďIt seems that boredom is not really that removed from desire. It seems that they are, in fact, the same urge more or less: the urge to do something.Ē The two main characters both talk about this urge leading them to violence. How are boredom and violence related?
Bertrand Russell said that "all human activity is prompted by desire." As I see it, we possess a simple desire to acquire things and repel things. I think that violence is the product of our inability to repel boredom. When I think about violence, then boredom for me is a good place to start. When people are bored, not just the palpable sense, or the feeling of having nothing to do, but truly bored to the extent that it has become their entire being, then the roots of violence make perfect sense to me. Heidegger, in his lecture "What is Metaphysics?" (1929) argues that this state of boredom is like a "muffling fog" that swathes us, and boredom itself, in "indifference" causing us to slide further into the abyss of our existence. Heidegger argues that such indifference is a platform for us to rebuild, or revalue our being-in-the-world -- so, for Heidegger this slide into the abyss is a good thing, it gives us space to observe things in finer detail. Ultimately, it affords us more time. Something we naturally crave. But he also warns us that such a slide can also suspend us in a state of dread (the same sense of dread I mentioned in an earlier answer), because this slide into the abyss is often perceived by us to be a slide into nothingness, something which basically scares the shit out of us. It is here that our frustrations begin, and it is also here, in our inability to survey existence from a plateau of nothingness that our frictions and frustrations arise -- which, as I see it can only lead to one thing: violence in all its multiplicitous guises. I suppose the danger here is for me as a writer to avoid the trappings of Heideggerian, or even Nietzschean Heroics, I mean who am I to say there is something to be found in meaninglessness and nothingness when there is so much bad stuff happening to people in this world?†
Can boredom ever lead to anything good, and if so, what?
Again, not that I read him that much, it was Bertrand Russell who said that "boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it." Not that Iím in any way shape or form a moralist, or The Canal imparts any form of moral guidance, but if I imagine that we could simply break things up into things that are deemed "good" and "bad" then I would concur with Russell and argue that good things happen when we try to embrace boredom rather than fight it. I think boredom, when we allow its indifferent space into our lives, can lead to a greater perspective on things; it allows us the mental sovereignty to observe and ponder things at a slower pace, away from modern distractions, which are only designed to quicken time anyway. It always amazes me that people want time to move quickly, to speed things up every day of their lives, to wile away their evenings and weekends doing things that are considered exciting and solely designed and conceived to pass the time for them, and then, when all this is over, at the end of there lives -- what a surprise! -- they wonder to themselves why things have passed them by so quickly. Whatís all that about?
During the novel, a stolen scooter and other discarded objects get thrown into the canal. The unnamed narrator wishes the dredgers would come along and clean the canal up. But then at one point, he wishes for the canal to be left alone. ďBecause even the dredgers were powerless to halt such unremitting decay.Ē Is the canal a metaphor for life itself?
I canít look at a dredger without first thinking of Jacques Derrida. I donít quite know what that says about me, but there you go. For Derrida, the dredger was a metaphor for many things, especially reading text and our methodology of filtering texts. In his own text Glas he calls the dredging machine "the good metaphor" in which he likens the act of reading to that of a dredging machine plunging into the depths of water and pulling up the silt and shit from the bed of The Canal: "I plunge a mouth of steel in the water [. . .] I scrape the bottom, hook onto stones and algae there that I lift up in order to set them down on the ground while the water quickly falls back from the mouth." (trans., J. P. Leavey Jr and R. Rand) I think Derrida means that when we read, there is only so much we can pick up, the silt, shit and water simply falls back. We leave something behind, which is just as important as the matter we lift out from the murky depths. In other words, no mater how much, as readers we try to philosophically, or hermeneutically lift meaning from a given text, the text always falls back away, or, as Derrida would say: falls back and remains.
In my mind, extending this "good metaphor" of Derridaís, the narrator of The Canal is admitting that no matter how much meaning he has tried to glean from the events which have confronted him and the woman, they will inevitably fall back away from him and simply remain -- just like the remaining shit and silt that falls back into the canal after the dredgers have finished their task. In this respect, the canal, and the upkeep of canals in general, is a pretty sound metaphor for life.
Did you spend a lot of time sitting at a canal before you wrote the book?
When I lived in Hackney in east London I spent a lot of time walking the Regentís canal, much like everyone else, into and out of the city. Itís a great place to get away from things. And yes, I sat at the bench that features in The Canal a lot (itís no longer there). But canals have featured heavily in my life. I grew up in Manchester in the north of England which is a tangle of canals, some huge like the Manchester Ship Canal, all of them remnants from the Industrial Revolution. The house I grew up in had a canal behind it and it was a place we (my group of childhood friends) would go to hang out. Some of my greatest adventures have taken place on the banks of canals. I have spent a lot of time at the Regentís canal. I like the way it exists just below street level -- you literally walk down to The Canal in London, and for a time, whilst you are down there, everything else exists just up above you -- the traffic, the noise, the every present tumult of the city -- just far enough away in order for it not to be too much of a distraction. Being on the canal in London isnít a complete dislocation from things. I like that.
Which writers have influenced your writing?
Many, but Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Ann Quin, Thomas Bernhard, JG Ballard, Gabriel Josipovici, Fernando Pessoa, Stephen Dixon, David Markson, Tom McCarthy and Jean-Philippe Toussaint mostly. Philosophy and literary theory also influences me so I would definitely say Maurice Blanchot, Simon Critchley, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Gaston Bachelard, Theodor W. Adorno, Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas. Also the poetry of Francis Ponge, Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats and Tomas TranstrŲmer.
Youíre a leading literary critic in the UK. How does being a critic affect your own fiction writing?
Well, I donít know about "leading," but I have certainly cut my teeth reviewing and championing contemporary fiction here in the UK. But to get back to your question: not that much really. Although, as fiction writing pulls me further in, Iím moving away from book reviewing now. I completely separate the two, anyway. I mean, my approach to writing a review, or an essay is so far removed from my approach to writing fiction. Obviously I think about Literature in the same analytical way I always have, but the writing of fiction and criticism are wholly two different things for me. I guess, when Iím writing fiction, I sometimes wonder what I would think of it as a critic, obviously, so I might make changes that way, but on the whole they exist in two very different realms of expression for me. So they donít really interfere with each other.
Name some of the best writers writing today.
There are so many right now, itís a good time for contemporary literature it seems. I would say Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Stewart Home, Tom McCarthy, Joshua Cohen, Travis Jeppesen, Tao Lin, John Wray, Niven Govinden, Steve Finbow, Blake Butler, Shane Jones, Zoran éivkovic, Jon Fosse, Jacques Roubaud, Gabriel Josipovici, Gwendoline Riley, HP Tinker, Dumitru Tsepeneag, Chris Killen, Ben Myers, Marie Darrieussecq, Michel Houellebecq, Dumitru Ţepeneag, Jacques Roubaud and far too many others to mention here . . .
What are you currently working on?
Iím just finishing my next novel Amber, which is set in the US, London and Hove on the south coast of England. Itís a novel about a Pylon Engineer, dwelling and shelter. Iím also trying to finish a short story collection called I Like To Be Stationary which is primarily about revolt and bureaucracy and Iím trying to finish a novella called Dead Land or Dead End -- I canít decide what to call it yet. Iíve just finished a work of critical theory thatís to be published by Hesperus Press in the UK called From Aesop to Flash Fiction: A Brief History of Fables which traces the fabulist influence of Aesop in contemporary Literature. The latter chapters I especially enjoyed writing as they are about writers such as Blake Butler, Shane Jones and Joseph Young who I think are doing some interesting things right now. Thatís about it, for now.