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July 8, 2010

Book Notes - Lee Rourke ("The Canal")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lee Rourke's debut novel The Canal is s surprisingly powerful novel about boredom. Not surprising in its writing, Rourke always impresses with his Guardian columns, and his short story collection Everyday (which I just finished) simply astonished me. The surprise is the theme, which Rourke effortlessly explores with his singular gift for dialogue and clever prose. What happens when boredom meets terror? This novel tells the tale wonderfully.

John Wray wrote of the book:

"A story assembled from everyday objects, unassumingly and quietly, that stuns and horrifies by increments...The Canal may look, at first glance, like a love story, but it harnesses the power of parable."

In his own words, here is Lee Rourke's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Canal:

The Canal is essentially a novel about boredom and its intersection with violence and technology. I am interested in the friction caused when the core elements of this triumvirate begin to fizz and crackle off of each other – it's a heady combination in the wrong hands. A man, who has recently quit his job, and an icy woman find themselves sitting next to each other on a bench by a canal. Two things can happen when two strangers find themselves sitting together on a bench: everything and nothing. These two possibilities, for me, are endless.

I listen to a lot of music when I'm bored, alone, or doing nothing; I have done since I was a teenager. I sometimes listen to music when I'm reading, but I never listen to music when I'm writing. Not that I have to write in silence, I don't, it's just that I never think to put music on when I'm writing, and when I do it often seems forced and contrived, so I leave it alone. But, when I'm writing, or thinking about the mood of a certain scene, I think about music a lot. I create moods in my fiction by thinking of certain songs, or pieces of music. It can be anything, from Dmitri Shostakovich to Public Enemy, just as long as it reflects the correct mood I'm trying to create. So, music is definitely part of my writing process in some strange way, even if it's never playing, or rarely name-checked in my fictions. I guess Friedrich Nietzsche was right: 'Without music life would be a mistake.'

"Boredom" by The Buzzcocks

For me this song is all about the lyric: 'I'm living in this movie/but it doesn't move me.' It perfectly sums up the tensions within my novel. The Canal plays with the idea of fiction being nothing but construct and the realities within it being nothing but fiction. There is a constant tussle between what is real and what is unreal, and I like to explore the idea of what is authentic or inauthentic: the unreal moments or the so-called 'real' moments. To me it's all fiction. This brilliant track, by the Manchester (my home town) punk stalwarts, is possibly my favourite of theirs. The lyric above is both Ballardian and Warholian and I love it.

"I'm Bored" by Iggy Pop

Again, for the lyrics: 'I'm a lengthy monologue', 'Just another slimy bore', ‘I bore myself to sleep at night/I bore myself in broad daylight', et cetera. I love their simplicity. And it proves to me that humour can be found in boredom. I mean, this song puts a smile on my face. Samuel Beckett quite rightly said: 'Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.' I kind of like to think that, in some weird and wonderful world, he and Iggy Pop are singing from the same hymn sheet. Whenever I re-read the narrator's letter of resignation in The Canal I think of this song.

"Repetition" – The Fall

'We dig repetition' caterwauls Mark E. Smith, 'repetition, repetition, repetition.' Again, another band from my hometown of Manchester, named after Albert Camus' wonderful novella The Fall, which is crucially set on a . . . canal ('a commodius vicus of recirculation' as Joyce calls it). The first half of my novel, where the narrator is befuddled in a miasma of boredom, is all about repetition: he watches the commuters on the towpath before him, the coots and the swans on the canal and the office workers in a whitewashed office block on the opposite bank as they to and fro one way and the other like somnambulists, carrying about their ordinary business all day long in a metronomic, soothing succession of basic repetitions: back and forth back and forth. Everything the narrator sees is Camus' very own Sisyphus.

"I Think I'm in Love" - Spiritualized

At one point the narrator of The Canal thinks he's in love with the woman on the bench. He harks back to a relationship he may or may not have had, one of many interpolation wove into the structure of the narrative, where he believes he reached the nearest point to what he believes being 'in love' could be before meeting this mysterious woman. He recalls lying in bed with a girlfriend one Sunday afternoon, doing nothing, just being 'in love' together. When I wrote this part of The Canal I was thinking of this hauntingly beautiful track from Spiritualized's wondrous album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Even now, thinking of this track, especially the lyric 'Think I'm in love/probably just hungry' I get Goosebumps. It is no coincidence that in the first third of The Canal, the narrator is always hungry.

"She's Lost Control" – Joy Division

Oh fuck it; I wasn't going to put this on here. I like to keep Joy Division to myself. But here you go – yet another Manchester band. I only ever listen to Joy Division when I am alone. This has always been the case, ever since I first listened to them after stealing one of their records from out of my brother's bedroom when I was young. I had to wait until everyone was out of the house before I could listen to it and then sneak it back into his room before he got back. I listen to Joy Division alone now probably because Holly, my wife, can't stand them. I like to think that the icy woman on the bench has lost control in some manic, flipped-out way, and I cannot separate her from this track. Ever since I first began to write her into The Canal – I remember thinking: 'I want her to be just like Joy Division's She's Lost Control'. I think in many ways she is, even though this song is about many things, including Ian Curtis' own illness and depression. But the following lyric is instrumental in understanding the frame of mind the woman in The Canal has been thrown into: 'And she's clinging to the nearest passer-by/She's lost control/ And she gave away the secrets of her past and said/I've lost control again.'

"Fix Up, Look Sharp" by Dizzee Rascal

Dizzee Rascal has lost a bit of his edge now, but his early stuff really captures inner-city London life on the council estates, where gangs of youths hang about with nothing to do and no real place to go, but still manage to retain a sense of sartorial pride and a street aesthetic. For a moment in time Dizzee was their voice, it's called 'grime' in London, and it is this genre of music I have the gang in The Canal listening to on their iPhones and iPods. I like the idea that no matter how boring, dull, rotten and hard life is on an average London council estate there is still this desire to 'fix up' and ‘look sharp'. It's kind of like the ‘60s Mod ethic of ‘clean living in difficult circumstances' – the working class of England have always had their finger on the pulse. Peacocks, one and all.

"Come to Daddy" by Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin (like Dizzee Rascal) is mentioned in passing by the narrator of The Canal. The narrator isn't really sure who they are – he has a vague idea. I suppose it's the wondrously grotesque videos that first drew me to Aphex Twin's work – they are incredibly disturbing, which is something that appeals to me a lot. They are also quite terrifying in places, too. Yet strangely beautiful in spite of this, I think. I wanted my novel to be both terrifying and beautiful in any way shape or form, so this strange, heady concoction that Aphex Twin blends is the perfect visual stimulation for me. I rarely listen to Aphex Twin without watching the videos.

"Roadrunner (Thrice)" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

This is probably my all-time favourite song. It is discussed at length in the 'Conversation One' chapter of The Canal. It is the only song in the whole novel that is discussed in any detail. ‘Roadrunner' is a song about what it means to be young behind the wheel of a car: a perfect machine that you can drive through the city at night ‘going faster miles an hour', 'past the Stop ‘n' Shop/ with the radio on.' For Richman, the song was his paean to Route 128 just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. So much so he re-recorded many versions (there are at least ten versions), constantly updating the lyrics. Throughout all of these versions of the same song he name-checks many of the sights along and around Route 128: Boston harbour, the Prudential Tower, Deer island and the Mass Pike, et cetera – a constant list of things passing him by as he drives along the road without much direction, just listening to the radio waiting for nothing in particular. For me there is a real tension in the song, like something bad is going to happen, like he is going to crash, or suffer some other catastrophe. In spite of this, I think the lyrics read like some sort of abstract never-ending poem:

'I'm in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it's cold outside
And the highway when it's late at night
Got the radio on
I'm like the roadrunner

I'm in love with modern moonlight
128 when it's dark outside
I'm in love with Massachusetts
I'm in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don't feel so bad now in the car
Don't feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That's right'

In the chapter 'Conversation One' of The Canal there is a running theme of the car as prosthesis. I am interested in the car, in a similar way to Ballard was: as a symbol of everything that is good and bad about us – an extension of ourselves. The car has morphed into a by-product, a commodity governed by the aetheticisation and fetishisation of technology. It is no surprise that we are commonly told that technology is our future (Ballard famously calculated: 'Sex x Technology = The Future'). It seems we have developed a subordinate relationship with technology; we are under its spell – and because of this, it is going to end badly, I think. Tom McCarthy's recent 'INS Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future' takes this idea one step further:

'The Future, culturally speaking, begins with a car crash. Or rather an account of one: a disaster always-already mediated, archived and replayed.'

In referencing Marinetti's infamous 1909 'The Futurist Manifesto' in this way McCarthy points us towards a future that has already happened, a future that ends in disaster, and a future, for Ballard at least, that is already ‘boring.' If one song can ever encapsulate all of this then it has to be ‘Roadrunner' in all its formats, and it is why it is instrumental to the make-up of not only chapter 'Conversation One' of The Canal, but my novel as a whole.

But then again, it's none of the above, it's just a song about 'driving faster miles an hour' with the 'radio on' down a road in a Plymouth Roadrunner car - and some days, for me alone, this is enough.

"Roadrunner" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers


"Roadrunner" (Twice)" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers


Lee Rourke and The Canal links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Bibliokept review
CultureCritic review
Three Guys One Book review

The Black Sheep Dances review
The Book Depository interview with the author
Dogmatika interview with the author
The Guardian articles by the author
HTMLGIANT interview with the author
RiverRun Bookstore guest post by the author
The Short Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists