A Form of Surrender to a Hallucinatory World

An interview with Lee Rourke by Liam Jones.

Lee Rourke’s work is difficult to summarise, because to summarise it would be to misrepresent it. By exposing the fissure in reality Rourke demonstrates the fallibility of language. Language in Rourke’s novels always seems like an effacement of reality. Despite this his work articulates with clarity a certain loss of meaning in contemporary neoliberal culture. His debut novel, The Canal, deals with boredom and the affect it produces. His latest, Vulgar Things, plays out like a mystery as the protagonist searches for coherency in the life of a relative. It is through this lens we glimpse at the futility of a search for meaning. Influenced as much by theory as he is by fiction, Rourke forces us to question the limits of human understanding and productivity through his narratives. This interview took place via email, between July 2014 and July 2015, with Rourke responding to a list of questions I sent to him.

Liam Jones: Repetition seems to play a key role in Vulgar Things. It can be seen most obviously through Uncle Rey’s character but also in Jon, how he also goes into the shed to look at Saturn or listens to the same Dr Feelgood records. When writing did you see repetition as a key way to move the plot and characterisation forwards?

Lee Rourke: Repetition is essentially humour played out through drama (drama in the original Greek sense/meaning of the word: ‘to do,’ ‘an act,’ ‘the thing done’—or, as I like to think of it: a goal): the more we repeat something, the funnier it gets. The aim is to reach that point of comedy. I think it was Hegel who said this (or it might have been Bergson). If we take this into account pretty much anything can be funny—I’m thinking (as I always do) of Beckett’s ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ here. We essentially reach a point where all of this stuff—no matter how miserable, or mundane—becomes funny. It is this exact point, through the repetition of all our petty dramas, we are striving to reach: a point of glorious, maddening humour that helps us to defeat all of the bad stuff. Kafka was all over this premise.

I lead a repetitive life, so do most other people, so why shouldn’t my characters? I purposely strive towards the patterns of everyday life—its circuitry and continual dead ends. My ‘characters’ are mapped through their repetitions, it’s the only way I can feel—or trick myself into thinking —that I am getting close to them (not that they are real, not in that sense), in the sense that patterns help us to read the subject more clearly. You mention Saturn and Dr Feelgood who are both repeating motifs in Vulgar Things: Saturn is the point of contact with the universe that holds everything together for Jon, the novel’s protagonist (who’s more of an antagonist), when Saturn disappears (i.e., he’s unable to locate it in the night sky with his uncle’s telescope) things begin to fall apart. Jon also obsesses over Wilko Johnson’s guitar playing on the Dr Feelgood records he finds—the staccato, repetitive guitar riffs strangely sooth him: they are fragmented, angled, sharp and jagged, but somehow they manage to wrap themselves around him like a warm, cosy, soft duvet.

I don’t think I ever came to the conclusion that repetition moves things forwards (even though it does) in fiction/narrative, I think it just happened that way because repetition feels intrinsic to me. It feels like the correct way to do things, to explore movement and action. As I said, I like the patterns of repetition. To use a common analogy: my favourite part of football punditry is when they single out a key player post-match, Eric Cantona, for instance, and trace his movement across the pitch through the duration of the match digitally on the screen—all that zig-zagging and running backwards and forwards—pure geometry—it makes for a beautiful image, but it also becomes something meaningful, it has a point, it builds towards the ultimate ending: a goal. It’s why football, like literature, is pure ‘drama.’


[This is a short extract, the full article is available to read in Issue Four]

Liam Jones works in a care home for those with dementia and holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool. His work has appeared places such as Jacobin, Minor Literatures and Figure/Ground. He blogs at plastictexts.wordpress.com, and writes on continental philosophy and contemporary fiction.