“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.


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.

HTMLGIANT Interviews Lee Rourke about His New Novel, The Canal

At HTMLGIANT, Catherine Lacey interviews Lee Rourke about boredom, the writing process, dialogue, foxes, and his new novel The Canal. Read our review of The Canal here. From the interview:

Your narrator speaks a lot about his philosophy on boredom. How much of this do you share with him?

Well, I would have to say quite a lot. I mean, I truly believe – as Bertrand Russell did before me – that if we truly embraced boredom there would be less violence in the world. When I say truly embrace boredom I mean that we should make an effort not to fight it – we especially shouldn’t do something just to stop us from feeling bored (this just leads to the type of passive nihilism the philosopher Simon Critchley warns us about). I think we should just accept it and naturally feel bored and ultimately do nothing. Fighting boredom only leads to friction, which can cause myriad things, including the type of violence that haunts my novel. But I know this is a losing battle. It is a losing battle because boredom reveals to us the nothingness that makes up our lives: the gaping void of our existence, its meaninglessness and finiteness. Obviously this gaping void scares the shit out of us. And it is because of this intrinsic fear that we mostly fail.

The Canal — Lee Rourke

In Lee Rourke’s début novel The Canal, the unnamed narrator quits his job and begins walking to a canal everyday. Why? Out of boredom. At the titular canal, he watches (and describes in banal detail) the geese, swans, and coots that swim in the filthy water. He also keeps one eye on the drudges who go about emailing and faxing in the office building across from the bench on which he sits each day. A strange, icy young woman soon begins sharing the bench with the narrator; in time, she also shares her morbid secrets with him. Complicating the narrator’s paradise of boredom is a gang of youths who terrorize the area with random violence. The novel’s steady pace escalates to frantic tragedy as the narrator’s bored repose gives over to desperate obsession with his erstwhile bench mate and her horrific past.

The Canal takes boredom as its explicit subject. In the second paragraph of the book, the narrator tells us–

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it 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.

The canal seems (at first) the right place for the narrator to embrace his boredom, but it soon becomes a space–a “real” space, as the narrator eventually realizes–of transformation and excitement. This space quickly complicates the narrator’s will toward “nothing,” that pull toward nihilism. He’s keenly interested in the various birds that make the canal their home, and his obsessive derision toward the office workers highlights the fact (a fact he doesn’t seem to see) that his apathy is not as pure as he would like it to be. Rather, his “boredom” is a direct response to the apparent meaninglessness of 21st century life in general and, specifically, life in post-Blair London. His horror and fear at the four hoodied teens from a nearby estate (the English equivalent of an American housing project) who insult and attack him is grounded in a relatively conventional morality, one that belies his enduring belief in his own apathy.

The most dramatic challenge to his philosophy of boredom though is his unnamed female foil. Through cryptic, elliptical dialogues he soon becomes a bizarre confessor to her strange sins. Yet she’s remorseless in her unrepentant nihilism. In one conversation she tells him that “There’s nothing left to believe in anywhere. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real.” This cheerful little aphorism comes after she reveals her empathy for (and sexual attraction to) the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. Terrorism, particularly the 7/7 attacks and the 9/11 WTC attacks are a major motif of The Canal; the unnamed narrator obsesses about flight (both of airplanes and birds) and dwells on the image of the planes crashing into the towers. Although he never admits it, it seems that both flight and death are possible forms of escape from the very boredom he claims to embrace. At the same time, the violence of terrorism seems part and parcel of his philosophy of boredom–

“It is obvious to me now that most acts of violence are caused by those who are truly bored. And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot control.”

And yet the violent acts of the estate youths shock and disgust the narrator. In one of the book’s most stunning passages, he watches them in horror as they destroy a stolen motor scooter and then cast it into the creek while filming the whole business on a cell phone. The scooter upsets the resting birds and becomes one more piece of detritus clogging up the canal–part of the “quagmire of nothingness,” perhaps. Repeatedly in the novel, the narrator wishes that long-overdue dredges will come along to clean the canal, to restore it, an impulse to control the stochastic violence of life that doubles his horror at the teen gang’s violence. In short, despite what he tells us, the narrator cannot embrace his boredom–although he does wish to name it, recognize it, and perhaps treat it.

This treatment comes in the form of the anti-ingenue he meets with daily by the canal. His obsession with her soon gives way to outright stalking. For a man who claims to embrace boredom, he’s awfully interested in her. The narrator’s stalking feeds into the novel’s deft discourse on surveillance in the 21st-century world, where CCTV, mobile phone cameras, and live pictures of spectacular disaster make people feel alternately safe or horrified (or at least alleviate some of their boredom). The narrator’s relationship with the woman tests the bounds of his devotion to boredom and reveals to both him and the novel’s audience that opting out is not always opting out. Rourke uses a quote from Martin Heidegger – “We are suspended in dread” – as an epigraph to the novel; the narrator must learn how to live in that suspension.

What makes The Canal such a remarkable read is watching the disconnect between the narrator’s would-be solution to life-as-state-of-dread (“embrace boredom”) and his actual responses to the effects of boredom in the world around him (literal and figurative waste, violence). Although he seeks to mitigate the pain of his dread and boredom by submitting to it, the novel repeatedly finds him engaging–and resisting–the cruelty and inhumanity he perceives. While parts of The Canal occasionally seem forced or overdetermined, there is much to commend here and the novel clearly suggests Rourke as a rising talent to watch out for. Recommended.

The Canal is available from Melville House on June 15, 2010.