'The Canal' by Lee Rourke

Being, as I am, in the process of attempting to put together a collection of Hackney related short stories, poetry and articles, I was keenly interested in getting hold of Lee Rourke's debut novel, 'The Canal'. Focusing on a unnamed male narrator who one day decides to eschew going to work in favour of sitting himself down on a bench by the Regents Canal on the borders between Hackney and Islington, the novel is essentially a extended treatise on modern life and boredom as a concept. The setting of the canal intrigued me greatly, being an area I know very well, having explored on foot and by bike a number of times; I have to admit the place does have a certain unique feel, with it's strange mix of office workers on route to work, joggers, cyclists, graffitti and litter, angry alcoholics, abandoned warehouse and gleaming new flats. A microcosm of Hackney and London itself.

The conceit of having a character, usually an 'average' member of society, effectively stepping out of society by embracing boredom is not a new one. Aspects of Rourke's novel reminded me of ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, strikingly similar in some of it themes despite the cultural difference - both focus on the idea of stepping out, sitting down and slowing down as a logical reaction to the insanity of modern consumer culture.

Secondly, it is clear the Rourke is greatly influenced by and indebted to J.G. Ballard, which of course no bad thing; 'The Canal' reminded me greatly in tone, and content, of Ballard's work, especially 'Concrete Island' which had its protagonist marooned on a traffic island surrounded by surging rivers of traffic.

But this is not to say that the novel is derivative, and Rourke uses his chosen location of the Regent's Canal very well indeed, capturing the sense of it being somehow separated from all the chaos of the City around it - if you've ever been there, you'll know it is exactly like that - and a magnet for marginals and the dispossessed.

So our unnamed narrator sits by the canal, stares at Canada geese, coots and moorhens, at the office workers in the sparkling new building opposite his bench, at the cyclists and joggers who stream by, and ruminates about his life, and most importantly, boredom. He embraces boredom, viewing all the trappings of modern life as merely a terrified losing battle attempting to stave it off. He makes his peace with boredom, as it were. A mysterious woman joins him on the bench, day after day, and eventually a tense relationship builds between them, that might just about feasibly be called a love story. 

This is mainly a novel of ideas; a slow rumination upon aspects of modern London life, with a focus squarely on North East London. Plot is not a heavy feature here, replaced instead by mood and introspection.

There are some flaws in 'The Canal', mainly that the characterisation of the hooded youths who periodically, often violently, appear along the canal seem two dimensional and caricatured, and I feel that the ending was rather melodramatic considering the almost plotless tone of the rest of the book. Some of the urban references (such as to Banksy graffitti) seem a little forced and don''t quite fit the tone of the novel.

However, this a very strong first novel, essential for any interested in 'Hackney issues', London fiction, or strange urban fiction following in the steps of Ballard. Recommended.