“Language Is Such a Mess” — A Short Review of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things

What does Slavoj Zizek mean when he says that the Lacanian Symoblic carries the “stain of the Real”? During a talk I once saw him deliver, we watched a clip from David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The plot is as follows: disaffected middle-class wife Celia Johnson falls in love with one Dr. Alec Harvey, both unhappily married with children, both finding in each other a means of escape from their droll realities. They can’t avoid running into people from their shared social circles, forcing them to lie, ultimately delivering us to the final scene. At the train station,  the precipice of their final good-bye, Johnson and Harvey are interrupted not only by a nagging friend of the former, but the whistle of Harvey’s train, preventing a passionate farewell (note: they also have not consummated their affair).

The point is that there is a Symbolic laid over a Symbolic — the first are Johnson’s and Harvey’s individual marriages, the illusion that the ritual provides access to the Real of intimacy (the failure of this accomplishment is signed by the crushingly boring misery of their lives); the second are the lies that overlap the marriages, a futile attempt to circumvent the trap of middle-class marriage. The point to this point: Johnson’s friend, the whistle, and the progressive threat of discovery with each new lie are policemen of the Real. Even in the myth of love we are not truly connected; the stain of the Real interrupts to remind us that there is no signifier of the Real without the Symbolic.

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Implicit in this construction is that there is no capital-T Truth, that the Symbolic always leaks the Real through its pores as it tries to envelop it. Such is the dilemma of Jon Michaels, the protagonist in Lee Rourke’s new novel Vulgar Things. Michaels, a mid-level editor at a small academic publisher, hungover from the funerary-celebratory bender of his recent sacking that shuttles against the wounds of a fresh divorce, is told by his perpetually unavailable brother Cal that their estranged Uncle Rey, lost to “‘wacky baccy and strange ways,'” has committed suicide in his caravan on Canvey Island, a tucked-away seatown in the Thames estuary in East London where people–mainly idealistic men–used to believe could restart their lives. Instead, it became a place to simply die.  “I’ve always understood, deep down, beneath the laughter,” Jon says during his first few steps on Canvey, “why the locals refer to it as the island, deep down it’s always made perfect sense to me: to feel dislocated, to feel lost and forgotten.”

It’s my disadvantage that I’m not English and know nothing about the UK’s geography, the cultural codes built into words like Southend or Queensway. To know, however vaguely, centuries of history through the mediation of businesses coming and going, hundreds-year-old buildings crammed up against new condos. The beaten bricks giving way to municipal sidewalk-grade cement. The phasing out of regional accents, the arrival of RP and other posh accents (this is the extent of my knowledge of the UK) to the grimace and chagrin of the locals, who know all the stories and histories of Canvey. Because Vulgar Things is a text built on and from the echoes of these stories, and of stories in general, the highways and throughways of mediation.

Vulgar Things‘s plot is far from compelling. Jon has to go clean out a dead uncle’s Caravan, becomes obsessed with a woman he sees on the pier, discovers something reality-shattering about himself and Rey. For the first fifty pages or so, I was struggling to find something in this limp plot, in Rourke’s signature flat prose (which is what got me jazzed on him in his last novel, The Canal). At first it seemed to be nothing; I was worried, but Rourke’s deliberately unremarkable and at times sophomoric prose points us to something else entirely: the desire to have desire, the desire for agency within a plot, and the inherent failure at attaining truth. In Canvey, “the sea and sky above [him], everything else behind [him, it] makes immediate sense, [his] being here, to help decipher things, to tie up all the loose ends of Uncle Rey’s life.”

Canvey is a space in which Jon is underneath the atmosphere, the systems of reality that fix Jon’s life in apathy: his overpriced London apartment, the dissatisfaction he found in his work, a failed marriage. The messy task of deciphering and reassembling Rey’s life through his papers loses Jon between temporalities. For here is a man surrendered to aimlessness, wanting anything that can fix him to a desire and thus a meaning and thus a truth. Jon’s and Rey’s wanderings collide wonderfully when, like a good mystery, Jon finds amidst the detritus of Rey’s life a manuscript titled Vulgar Things, a reassemblage of Petrarch’s sonnets, the only poet, according to Rey, who got anything right.  Rourke’s Vulgar Things becomes a palimpsest of Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” itself a palimpsest of Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Fragments of Common Things). The elevation of the banal is reflected in this mediation through the form of the book — the days of the week are built from ordinary phrases, seemingly forgetful perceptions: “such a long time”; “afternoon drinking”; “pointless”; “part of the furniture.” As if these are the forgettable shots in a film, the necessary moves that help get us from Point A to Point B. The limp conceit I mentioned above becomes a kind of mystery-thriller, not unlike the strange turns that Rourke’s last novel takes, when Jon becomes animated by Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” the secrets he points to in his strange video recordings. The startling coincidences of Laura throughout the three media (Petrarch, Rey and Jon).

Sort of unsure how to end this, much like how Jon is unsure how to integrate the revelations he has at the end of the book. He doesn’t keep anything; which is to say, we’re prevented an ending that Symbolically ties up the trajectories of desire that Vulgar Things elicits (perhaps solicits) from us. Again, this is much of the book’s thesis. We need language, but language is a medium, and these mediums are haunted by its linguistic and media forebears and continually fail at providing a truth beyond its Symbolic functions. Yet we are caught in desire, caught in language, and can do little else than to contend with that failure.