The Canal by Lee Rourke (Shane's book 2, 2011)

This book won The Guardian's Not The Booker prize last year so I was expecting something impressive. I can only surmise that I missed whatever The Guardian's readers saw in it. It seemed to me to be a fairly ordinary book and one that thinks it's very intelligent, while actually being rather shallow.

The plot concerns an unnamed man who decides to stop going to work and to instead spend his days sitting on a bench beside the Regent's Canal. He wants to embrace boredom and so he sits and watches the world go by.

There are spoilers in what follows, so if you don't want to know one of the book's major turning points, you should stop reading now.

My first problem with the book is the protagonist's decision to embrace 'boredom'. Let's leave aside the fact that, conveniently, he has an inheritance to fall back on which means that he can leave his job without consequence; the challenges of trying to withdraw from working life are not within this book's purview and that's ok. The problem is with the concept of embracing boredom itself. I can accept that being bored for short periods of time can be a positive thing but only in retrospect. It can mean time to clear the head or it can simply make an engaging task, when it comes, more enjoyable, like eating a meal after getting very hungry.

But if you're finding the experience of boredom itself rewarding, are you in fact bored? Chambers has 'to bore' as "to weary or annoy with tediousness". Could anyone but a masochist find that experience rewarding? Here's the protagonist:

"I liked being bored - I liked what it was doing to me. The word 'boring' is usually used to denote a lack of meaning - an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn't empty of anything; it was tangible - it had meaning."

He seems to be having quite a good time just watching the world go by, thinking his thoughts and being intellectual. I would question whether the protagonist is bored at all. You might not think that matters but to me it suggests that one of the book's key themes is ill-conceived. Here he is again:

"Those who are bored, and, more importantly, embrace their boredom, have a far clearer perspective on a) themselves and b) those around them. Those who are not bored are merely lost in superfluous activity: fashion, lifestyle, TV, drink, drugs, technology et cetera - the usual things we use to pass the time. The irony being that they're just as bored as I am, only they think they're not because they are continually doing something. And what they are doing is battling boredom, which is a losing battle."

There are a few problems with this: what use is a "far clearer perspective" if you spend your days sitting on a bench by the canal?; is performing surgery, spending time with loved ones or indeed reading a novel still "superfluous activity"? If so, we could be back to the problem of not really knowing what boredom is; are other people really just bored or is it possible that they actually are enjoying themselves; and finally, isn't saying 'battling boredom is pointless because you'll always lose' a bit like saying there's no point doing anything with your life because one day you'll die? It might be a good point but it's not much of a strategy.

Eventually a woman joins him on his bench beside the canal. She's not terribly forthcoming but she's there on the bench, day after day, and a relationship slowly forms. This is where the whole boredom theme falls apart completely. Our hero is interested in this woman in every sense of the word.

Then comes the book's second troublesome turn: the woman tells the man that she killed someone, quite deliberately, in a hit-and-run. She says: "He was a pointless man, a meaningless human being."

Two problems here: first, killing someone because they lack "meaning" is, need I say, psychopathic, and second, the woman didn't know anything about the man at the time when she killed him so her justification is redundant as well as repugnant.

After a brief attempt to comprehend the news that the woman he fancies is a raving lunatic - "It's just too awful. You killed a man" - the protagonist becomes even more entranced by her and determined to get inside either her head or her pants - he doesn't seem too bothered which.

It's hard to relate to. Take this, for example, from the protagonist:

"...people who often talked about cars - groups of lads in pubs and at work, et cetera - sickened me to such an extent that I had to get up and remove myself from the conversation."

I'm not much interested in cars myself - I can't even drive - but that seems like a fairly extreme reaction. And what are we to make of someone who gets so "sickened" by talk of cars that he has to leave the conversation but happily continues pursuing a woman who has confessed to murdering a stranger for no reason at all?

The protagonist, it seems to me, thinks he's much smarter than he is, has a very poorly thought out view of life and is oddly tolerant of murderers. He's an idiot, at best, but my worry about this book is that I think we're supposed to find him deep and his views thought-provoking.

However, I can't be sure. There's some very precise, observant writing but there's some sloppiness too. The protagonist says things like "the very next day" instead of "the next day" and "as per usual" rather than "as usual". Are these redundancies Rourke's or the characters? And if they are the characters are they meant to signify someone slightly pompous, less clever than they think? No, I think they're just examples of sloppy writing.

Somebody other than me, possibly a sixth former with too many emo records, might consider this book profound. I just found it boring.

And not in a good way.