Here is my introduction to Lee Rourke‘s short story collection, Everyday (Social Disease, 2007, pp. 9-13). I wrote it in October 2007 and the book was published in December:
Unlike his characters (1), Lee Rourke doesn’t go unnoticed. The first time we met was in the toilet at Filthy Macnasty’s where he’d cornered me during a gig organised by 3:AM Magazine back in April 2005. Oblivious to the funny looks people were giving us, he waxed lyrical about the literary insurrection we had kick-started five years earlier and were celebrating that night. Somewhere in the background, Shane MacGowan was emptying his bladder to the strains of the Monochrome Set. It was there — in what Joe Orton called the last stronghold of male privilege — that I realised a new scene (the Offbeats) had emerged. And Lee was slap-bang in the middle of it. I already knew of him as the editor of Scarecrow who banged the drum for “the unheard, the unconventional, the eccentric, the revolutionary and the radical”. I was soon to discover his short stories — as you are now. Brace yourselves.
What can you expect? Well, it all depends whether you squint or not, of course. If you do: 1) David Brent dry-humping Franz Kafka over the zerox machine, 2) an episode of Nathan Barley penned by Herman Melville and shot by Mike Leigh, 3) The Rakes fronted by Julian Maclaren-Ross with Patrick Hamilton on bass, Ann Quinn on drums and Maurice Blanchot on kazoo. If you don’t: pigeons, pints of bitterness, work, Islington, gratuitous violence, boredom, Hackney twits, psychogeography, pigeons, Hoxton twats, anonymous crushes on public transport, class war, urban alienation, media whores, pigeons, happy slapping, sexual frustration, City yuppies, the threat of terrorism, immigrants from Eastern Europe, boredom, work, binge drinking, pigeons, pigeons and more pigeons…
Lee Rourke certainly has his finger on London’s tachycardiac pulse, but it is the universal he zeroes in on with obvious relish. In one story, William Blake’s sober gravestone suddenly rears into view (“Gravestones”). Baudelaire’s captured albatross — a symbol of the impotence of the artist — reappears here in the shape of one of those big advertising placards modern slaves hold up for a living on busy street corners (“The Only Living Boy on Oxford Street”). The tale of the swan that is killed for kicks by a couple of mindless thugs has all the gravitas and pathos of a Greekish deicide. The pole dancer whose rotting flesh decomposes with every new gyration echoes Webster’s skull beneath the skin (“Night Shift”)…
Alongside the ubiquitous pigeons, the emblem of this collection is surely the photocopying machine. This is why the figure of Sisyphus looms so large, from the hypnotic sway of a woman’s rump in “Cruel Work” to the Groundhog Day pattern (2) of “Footfalls”. After being knocked over by a runaway bus, a man is condemned to circle round Soho looking in vain for the young woman who had come to his rescue (“Searching For Amy”). Taking his cue from Dante via Eliot, Rourke describes the vicious Circle Line as a noughties version of the nine circles of Hell all rolled into one. The office drones (a keyword) who inhabit these stories are the direct descendants of the living dead crossing London Bridge in The Waste Land (minus Eliot’s class snobbery). In the author’s words, Everyday expresses “the realisation that we are fragmenting, falling, and that it is never ending: just repeating” (3). Rourke is fascinated by the straw that breaks the camel’s back — the moment when his Bartlebys start running amok or falling apart. As in Michael Andrews’ famous painting, people keep falling over, giving in to gravity, endlessly reenacting their postlapsarian condition (4). After dropping like flies, they squirm on their backs, Kafkaesque insects, while indifferent passersby pass them by. Again and again and again. And when they finally get up, they jump back on the conveyor belt. “I’m not what you could describe ‘as going places’,” says the eponymous narrator of “John Barleycorn” reflecting on the treadmill of his life. These characterless characters are always on the go, but theirs is the restlessness of the undead. They are going nowhere fast.
Some of the stories collected here hardly qualify as stories at all. They are vignettes, or “fragments” to use Rourke’s preferred term — fragments of a bigger picture that doesn’t end (5). There is no whole in Everyday, just a gaping hole in a pair of black tights, a book of blank pages and an all-pervasive Heideggerian boredom. A gaping whole, but no grand narrative. Lee Rourke “documents the little alleyways and back streets,” which brings us back to the toilet at Filthy MacNasty’s where it all began.
(1) Rourke is fond of aptronyms (Sheila Hole, Elaine Lowbottom or the bibulous John Barleycorn), some of which advertise the characters’ very banality: “Hack” or “Guy”, for instance, are ideal names for everyday Everymen. And then, of course, there’s “Anon”.
(2) Or should that be Wernham Hogg?
(3) “Purposely Resisting All That: An Interview With Lee Rourke” by Susan Tomaselli, Dogmatika, October 2007.
(4) Here, we are very close to the failed transcendence that lies at the heart of Tom McCarthy’s works (which Rourke has described as “blueprints” for his own).
(5) Originally, the sentence “They are vignettes, or ‘fragments’ to use Rourke’s preferred term — fragments of a bigger picture that doesn’t end” read: “They are vignettes, or ‘fragments’ to use Rourke’s preferred term — fragments of a bigger picture that doesn’t exist”.
Lee Rourke’s book was reviewed in Time Out (London) on 4 February 2008. John O’Connell devoted a paragraph to my “overexcited” intro (which, by the way, wasn’t written “straightfacedly”). Here is the relevant extract:
“At their best they’re [Lee Rourke’s stories] a delight, but at times their faux-naive simplicity (‘It was two o’clock in the afternoon…’) feels slapdash, as if Rourke were more interested in establishing himself in a specific cultural pantheon than in crafting work that truly moves and endures.
An overexcited introduction by 3:AM Magazine editor Andrew Gallix underscores this, likening one tale, apparently straightfacedly, to ‘an episode of ‘Nathan Barley’ penned by Herman Melville and shot by Mike Leigh’ (a formulation which does the past-its-sell-by-date Hoxton satire of ‘Tale of an Idiot’ no favours) and another, intriguingly, to ‘The Rakes fronted by Julian Maclaren-Ross with Patrick Hamilton on bass, Ann Quin on drums and Maurice Blanchot on kazoo’. But the stories shouldn’t need this buttressing of explained context. As it is, they expend so much energy gesturing beyond themselves rather than simply being that they seem to aspire to some other status entirely — art prank, perhaps”.