“I’m not asking you to understand. I’m asking you to listen.” – Thoughts on The Canal by Lee Rourke

First off, a story (of sorts) – here is how I ended up reading this book:

“Oh, a book on boredom! That’s a new concept. Interesting. Maybe I should read it. I definitely should read it. Or maybe the boredom thing’s just a ploy – you know, those kinds of books ‘promising narration of an equally promising point of view,’ until you actually read it and then find out it’s a total waste of time and brain cells. Then again, I wouldn’t know until I try. Oh well, no harm done in reading it.”

And that was that.

A person needs three things when reading Lee Rourke’s The Canal: patience, patience, and more patience. But don’t get me wrong – I didn’t enumerate patience three times to emphasize a great deal needed for this book. Rather, different things call for different kinds of patience, and so you need three versions of it for three things: patience for the story, patience for the (unnamed) narrator, and patience for the shifting fascinations on things, namely on ducks, gravity, and airplanes.

Am I making sense here? Not really, no? Here, let me try again.

I’m the kind of person who stubbornly reads through a book no matter what. Sometimes I put them down for a time – a day or two, a week, a month, until I run out of other books to read and I have no other choice – but for as long as I’ve started reading them, I have a need to finish them. Fortunately, The Canal didn’t need to be put down out of boredom – on the contrary, I had to stop reading to prolong the agony before the last chapter, something I did not expect to be doing when I started reading. Which is why, dear readers, it is a book that should not – I repeat, not – be judged by its first 50 pages.

The narrator – nameless, faceless, jobless even – is probably the most bored person I’ve read of. He reminds me of that dude from Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, except that this narrator isn’t filthy rich nor young (nor with an identity, even). Our narrator, however, has a lush vocabulary. Some examples:

“I’d say it was almost crepuscular…”

“I hoped that my crumbling riposte the previous week hadn’t alarmed her.”

“…looking at the multitudinous rooftops of Hackney.”

So to say that the narration is lifeless and boring is just plain wrong – nobody uses miasma in everyday sentence, let alone on everyday thought. The upside to our male narrator is an equally nameless, albeit more mysterious, female subject – who is harboring a secret. On page 51.

Told you not to judge by its first 50 pages.

This secret is the thing that bonds these two strangers – she talks, he listens. “Bored people will listen to just about anything,” she said, and so he is consumed by her confidences, to the point that he obsesses over her identity – “and her lessness made it all the more terrifying” – and what had brought her to the canal, where he spends his boring days. What she shares would shock any of us in real life, I’m sure, but then again, isn’t it easier opening up to strangers? “Unlike my friends, the few I have, I don’t care what you think about me.”

Rourke writes with subtle OCD, his attention to detail covering ducks and canal dredgers and airplanes; he can shift from the general picture to Boeing 747s and specific sub-aquatic birds. The book’s tone is set to somber, yet I can’t help but think of Rourke’s writing as quirky – quietly dizzying, or whatever oxymoron fits the description. I disagree with John Wray’s blurb at the back of the book – “The Canal may look, at first glance, like a love story” – because it is a love story. Only it’s not about the love story, but something else.

Overall, The Canal is one elaborately long, suspenseful scene, stretched so far, for as long you can take it, and then in one swift movement Rourke lets you go. It starts with boredom, yes, but then again boredom leads to many things.

PS. Rourke’s description of rain: “a cacophony of mini-aquatic explosions” – just perfect.


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