Friday, September 07, 2012

"The Delirium of the Real Thing": Tim Parks, "Rapids"

Almost at the end of Tim Parks's novel Rapids, Vince, a character who has slowly emerged as the story's focus, decides not to return from his kayaking holiday in South Tirol to his job as a chief financial officer at a major bank in London. He reflects on the relationship between the holiday world and the everyday world: "Was it that all life until now had been a tired spell, from which he was suddenly released? Or was it this situation that was snatching him from reality?" (243). Here, the boundary between "all life until now" (his life back in London) and "this situation" (the kayaking experience in Italy) is identified as a boundary between the real and the unreal. This is made explicit by the second question, which identifies "reality" with the everyday existence his choice is "snatching him from." But retrospectively, it is implicit in the first question as well, in which the "tired spell" of routine is seen as something to be "released" from. From this perspective, one is enthralled by routine, in thrall to it, and the decision to not return from the holiday is a liberation into reality, an escape from the deadening enchantment of the everyday.

The idea that everyday life is not "real," while a kayaking holiday is "real," is articulated again and again in the course of the book. Early on, Clive, the head instructor on the holiday, says that "when you spend time by the river and on the river, you can't help but understand how dull and squalid a lot of so-called civilised life is" (15). When Vince's kayaking skills begin to improve, he senses it by noticing a change in how he thinks: "Never had his mind thought so intensely and lucidly" (132). And this intensity and lucidity is "the delirium of the real thing" (149).

But even here, the boundary between reality and unreality (holiday and everyday life) can flip, as in another of Vince's reflections a few pages later: "He was impatient for the parenthesis of this holiday to be over, so he could know how he really felt" (159). The intensity of the holiday experience now seems like unreality, like a parenthesis, and only back in London would he be able to identify his "real" feelings, not the heightened feelings of kayaking. Even Clive's distinction between "dull and squalid" life and the intensity of the river is inverted in his girlfriend Michaela's memory of an idea of his: "Well, Clive always says, the trouble is, after the high of getting away with it on the river, nothing has really changed. It isn't a real risk" (227). Michaela's conclusion is that "these sports are something you do instead of life" (240). The sporting experience, no matter how extreme it is, is not unambiguously "real." 

Vince summarizes this tension a few lines after the passage I began with: "Or each state was a form of enchantment, worth as much or as little as the other" (243). Here, both the everyday and the exceptional have their own "enchanting" character, and Vince reaches for an understanding of them that no longer privileges one over the other in a manner that cannot help be unstable. The intensity of the exceptional may seem more "real" than the everyday, but as long as the latter is also called "the real world," then the contrast will remain unstable. Whether "the real thing" is life at home or an adventure elsewhere, it will remain a "delirium."

(I also wrote about Rapids once before: here, in one of my earliest blog posts.)

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