On a London bench, two strangers talk about desire and terror: “People wear masks. These masks, they do not even know they are wearing them.”
It took Siddhartha Gautama forty-nine days under an ancient banyan tree to achieve enlightenment. If he had instead sat on a graffiti-covered bench on the edge of a greasy industrial canal, staring at a dilapidated office park and counting floating beer bottles, he might have come to understand the impermanence of all things and the futility of human desire weeks earlier.
Such is the example, anyway, of the schlubby narrator of Lee Rourke’s novel The Canal, who quits his job and returns to the same towpath on an unremarkable stretch of London waterway day after day in order to seek spiritual reward through boredom.
The narrator establishes his first truth as early as page one:
Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; 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.
This narrator is an unlikely guru. He’s the stereotype of the contemporary English protagonist: a meek drone, too polite to act on desire, embarrassed by attention, happy to sidle through life without causing much of a fuss. Yet he doesn’t seem satisfied with boredom leading to “nothing”; he often seems to be waiting for a Mr. Hyde to take over and compel him to do something beyond the bounds of common decency. Much of this novel’s sly humor comes from this man’s half-conscious hope that he’ll somehow be carried along on a wave of impulse.
Inspiration comes in the form of an attractive, neurotic young woman who begins sitting with the narrator on the bench most days. The two begin to talk deeply, but she refuses to reveal certain details about her identity, including her name. Her reticence is a mystery—she might be holding back because she wants to control the terms of their provisional bench-sharing relationship; or she might be a hallucination, a necessary fiction the narrator has created for himself. Or perhaps she just has a severe dissociative disorder. “People wear masks,” she says. “These masks, they do not even know they are wearing them.”
What she does reveal is that she’s done a few bad things and one truly terrible thing on a whim. The narrator finds her impulsive malice horrifying and also very sexy. So begin the dialogues-between-foils that make up the backbone of the novel—conversations about being and nothingness, and the nature of boredom, impulse, inhibition, action, inaction, desire, and terror.
Many of these conversations end before they really have a chance to get going, which is disappointing in a novel that explicitly subordinates plot and character development to philosophical play. Also lacking in these discussions—and in the narrator’s interior ruminations—is any sense of surprise or revelation: Most of the narrator’s reflections on the void are detailed descriptions of his paranoia, dread, and hopeless sexual longing, feelings that require no special illumination for most readers.
But The Canal does a great job making the case for two gifts that boredom bestows: the power of the wandering eye and the power of the drifting thought. In quitting the world of striving adults, the narrator unwittingly takes on the job of tour guide in the weeds-through-concrete back corners of London. Boredom helps him notice what he might miss if he had better things to stare at. From his bench, he observes episodes of urban decay that begin to take on a wild, meditative beauty: a fox pursues a sewer rat under a rusting bridge, swans build a nest of post-consumer flotsam, cigarette butts accumulate on the towpath until they begin to look like “decorations sprinkled on top of a chocolate cake.” These details are idiosyncratic and well crafted, and make up the beating heart of the novel.
Obsessed with the scheduled arrival of a sanitation boat that will dredge the junk from the bottom of the canal, the narrator begins to dredge up his own submerged psychic garbage. He becomes overwhelmed by involuntary memories of chance moments and impulsive actions that seemed insignificant at the time but came to shape his life. The narrator’s true spiritual ancestor then may be Proust’s Marcel, a man who knew exactly what to do with boredom. Instead of sentimentalizing childhood snacks, however, this narrator sentimentalizes ugly, bewildering, and homely moments, and does a lovely job of it.
Even though nothing much happens in The Canal, Rourke pulls off a neat trick: a dull stretch of urban neglect and a dull, ordinary life are transformed into beautiful creatures. The muck dredged from the canal and the muck dredged from the narrator’s memory are evidence of sad, strange urban histories full of longing, repression, and compulsion. The Canal is an interesting and provocative debut—but readers who disagree that boredom is a good thing, be warned.