Lee Rourke‘s novel The Canal got under my skin. At first, it’s a book about not a lot happening: its protagonist gradually steps back from his life, and spends his days sitting beside a canal. Eventually, he meets a woman who seems to share some of his sensibilities; slowly, a book that seemed to be about minor details takes on a more expansive focus. Rourke’s novel Vulgar Things (out now in the UK; out this summer in the US) has, on the surface, a more conventional plot, in which a man named Jon must tend to the objects left behind by his recently-deceased uncle. But complexities arise there as well: secrets are revealed, identities blur, and narratives past and present collide with one another. I reached out to Rourke via email to discuss both of his novels, questions of geography, and more.
Vol.1 Brooklyn: Though the narrative of Vulgar Things is a fairly intimate one, it still seems expansive in comparison to The Canal. Was the setting of this conceived in part as a reaction to your earlier novel?
Lee Rourke: Yes, it was a simple conscious decision: if The Canal is a novel of stasis, then Vulgar Things had to be a novel of motion. Which it is. Again, it is an aimless motion. I am interested in aimlessness. There is no aim other than the protagonist’s reactions to the environment that surrounds him: sky, flat horizons, the night sky, stars, sea, roads, hills, et cetera. I rather see him as a pinball in a machine, being pinged here and there without much hope of control, as much as he wants to force some sense of order on things.
Whereas The Canal responds in language to the stagnant still water in Regent’s canal, Vulgar Things responds (in the same way) to the tidal ebb and flow of the Thames Estuary out in the wilds of Essex: Canvey Island and Southend. The movement is repetitive, a toing and froing, much like the pendulum of a large clock counting the days.
Jon, Vulgar Things‘ protagonist, is dwelling between earth and sky in the Heideggerian sense, I guess. He dwells there, for his short time, being flung to and fro, because there is a desire to become connected with the things around him – whatever they are, or turn out to be: discarded home videos addressed to Jon left behind by his dead uncle, mysterious people and happenings on the island, et cetera
V1B: Without giving too much of the plot away, a manuscript figures prominently into Jon’s activities in the book. Did you have a sense of what the parts of the manuscript that we don’t see contain?
LR: Yes. It’s the heart of the book which mirrors the book we are reading/I was writing. Jon’s uncle Rey, a shadowy figure, is both cipher and codex to Jon’s existence and the truth Uncle Rey is trying to relay to him. This relaying is twofold, brought forth into the novel via Petrarch and Virgil. For me, and the make-up of this novel, Petrarch is used to relay desire and Virgil the impossibility of truth. Through the tapes and recordings that Uncle Rey has left behind for Jon to find, much like Beckett’s Krapp, we see technology revealing to us the desire that underpins everything. I have always loved Petrarch: you know, the guy who single-handedly invented the sonnet: when one day he was walking over a bridge and bumped into a girl he kind of knew, Laura, they had the most briefest of conversations and then went their separate ways. Petrarch spent the rest of his life, long after Laura had died, writing over 800 sonnets about her and his love for her, unrequited and distant, he brought the woman worshiped on the pedestal into artistic prominence (think of the vulgarity of the strip club – it’s a vulgar elongation of the same desire evolved through time, modernity, and mediation). The whole of Vulgar Things echoes Petrarch’s sad, clichéd, pitiful yet somewhat beautiful desires. We see the same echoing of desire in Jon’s obsessions with the girl he meets on the pier, and the other girls he meets in the brothel and in the clubs and pubs of Southend, he never reaches them, his interaction is always from afar, or through the mediated lens of Uncle Rey echoing Petrarch.
But more importantly, for me, and for this novel, is its own sense of inauthenticity. How can a novel that echoes other texts be authentic? It isn’t, just as Virgil’s writings weren’t, and every other text with read, infiltrated consciously and unconsciously with intertextual hauntings.
So we see one chapter, ‘The Underworld’ of Uncle Rey’s novel Vulgar Things in my novel Vulgar Things which is a re-writing of Virgil’s ‘The Underworld’ from his epic; The Aeneid – which in itself was a grand work of intertextuality drawing from Homer, et al, recreating a truth from the fictions/texts around him. Virgil was Ballardian before us all: we have to create the reality from the fictions around us.
‘The Underworld’ from Virgil’s Aeneid has influenced me in so many ways. I like the theme of the ‘unburied dead’ which runs through this section (it seems to explain to me just what Literature is in some weird way), the idea that nothing can be properly buried. More recently I have aligned it with Blanchot’s wonderful (and very short) essay about writing ‘The Myth of Orpheus’, in which Blanchot appropriates Orpheus’s failed attempted to rescue Eurydice to explain our own failed search for truth through language: the symbolic idea of failing to dig, deep down into the dark, depths of our mind to retrieve truth/writing/language/whatever back up into the cold light of day/the page. For me, there is always a murkiness to writing, to Literature itself, it’s never clear, there are always smudges, black marks, and blurring which obstructs our search for truth and authenticity. The great lie: that fiction somehow reveals truth. Vulgar Things hangs on this premise, so that chapter of Virgil’s had to be centrifugal to my text (albeit a blurred, re-writing of it).
V1B: The sense that the reader gets of Canvey Island is all-encompassing. What led you to select it for the setting? Did the setting come first, or did the characters?
LR: Always the setting and the atmosphere that setting creates. I guess, I am a mood writer responding to topography. I mean, the Thames Estuary is such a beautifully beguiling place steeped in mythology, story-telling, and ghosts. Its large skies are beyond incredible, the estuary and surrounding land a flatness that vanishes into a strange horizon. There’s countless literature’s written about and inspired by the place, take the opening paragraph of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for example:
‘The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness’.
The Thames barges have pretty much gone now, but it’s this same vanishing flatness that I’m after, I wanted to explore this in Vulgar Things, the same thing, like a Richter painting when the tide is out: a smudged blur of grey, green and brown, Francis Ponge’s mud (‘Despised mud, I love you. I love you because people scorn you. / May my writing, literal mud, splash the faces of those who / disparage you!’). The mud of the Thames Estuary: as flat as flat can be, slurping, squelching as far out as the eye can see.
Canvey Island is a special place: below sea-level for a start, re-claimed land from the sea. The place was flooded in 1953 and about 59 people lost their lives, to this day there is a palpable, almost biblical sense of looming catastrophe that haunts the place. A sense of this is reflected in the music of Dr Feelgood, especially those songs penned by Wilko Johnson (to whom Vulgar Things is dedicated). When I first visited Canvey, I knew I would discard the novel I was currently writing and begin work on what would become Vulgar Things immediately
V1B: The dialogue in Vulgar Things makes abundant use of pauses and hesitation in a very naturalistic (and compelling) way. How do you go about writing dialogue?
LR: Dialogue is listening. If you listen to people speak to each other, it is littered with blank spaces and pauses, stammers and snags, these glitches are as important, if not more important, that what is said. So it is natural for me to litter my dialogue with these same things.
So I aim for these blank spaces, I look to see where these may appear when something is spoken. They appear everywhere. Nothing is solid, language, especially everyday speech is perforated to the core.
V1B: Do you see Vulgar Things and The Canal as being in dialogue in any way?
LR: Yes, they obviously explore most of my obsessions: mostly our repetitive being-in-the-world, our failings and our vainglorious, uninspiring needs. Violence and its intersection with boredom, lostness/meaninglessness and the everyday. Love, desire, technology. You know all the stuff the cool, postmodern, plot-boiler novelists despise. I like to think my work is involved in a fading dialogue with ‘Literature’ itself (whatever Literature is), as something gradually moving away, passing slowly, trying to leave it (and what it has become) behind.
V1B: Since finishing Vulgar Things, have you returned to the book that you discarded to begin work on that? If not, do you foresee any part of it being re-used?
LR: I picked it back up the week I finished Vulgar Things in late 2013. I cut about 50,000 words and now have a 48,000 word novel called As We Are Falling You Are Passing Away that I am extremely happy with. I like that it is short. And it seems different to The Canal and Vulgar Things (although it’s certainly not a departure). It’s about Glitches and is set in Southwold and Dunwich on the North Sea/Suffolk Coast (home of Britain’s very own Atlantis).
V1B: Are there any other locations that you hope to use as the setting for fiction in the future?
LR: Well, I’m a Mancunian and I’m currently writing a novel spanning 8-9 decades set in Manchester in the north of England. I have always wanted to write a big Manchester novel that is unlike the plethora of generation-spanning family sagas that clog up the publishing industry. It’s about the Irish Mancunians (Manchester has a big Irish population and influence), following a family as they first find their foothold in 1930s Manchester through to and beyond the present day. It doesn’t litter itself with time and its signifiers, so the decades are never named, and it’s relayed to us through a sense of place and places and the emotions they evoke, written in a stream of consciousness through the eyes of a septuagenarian patriarch as he struggles with the final stages of Parkinson’s disease.
I’ve always wanted to set something in LA for some unknown reason. I visit LA each year and I like driving whenever I’m there. I’d like to write something centred around those maddeningly beautiful freeways out there.
I’ve also got my eye a strange place called Foulness not far from where I live.