It is best to read Iain Sinclair’s work out of the corner of your eye. The action takes place on the peripheries; it disintegrates if you concentrate too hard on the middle. Dining on Stones, a postmodern thriller for geeky pedestrians, doesn’t really have a story; Sinclair’s idea of a plot is a walk. Andrew Norton, a disillusioned flâneur, novelist and bookseller lives in Hackney. Dover St Gallery commissions him to write a commentary on the artist Jimmy Seed, who paints pictures of motorways: ‘Bucket of whitewash, slap in a few lorries with fine badger brush and leave the rest misty and impressionistic. Let the buggers see what they want to see in a tribute to absence.’ This is the opposite of Sinclair’s turbulent narrative, in which little is left for the buggers to work out, and the buggers still can’t work it out.
Having driven endlessly up and down the A13 hunting for bargain books, Andrew Norton decides to set out along the road on foot. Sinclair’s books tend to feature urban strollers. London Orbital (2002) is a non-fiction account of his walks around the M25. ‘Yes, I want to walk around the orbital motorway,’ he writes in that book, ‘in the belief that this nowhere, this edge, is the place that will offer fresh narratives.’ In Dining on Stones, the A13 is a ‘semi-celestial highway, a Blakean transit to a higher mythology, a landscape of sacred mounds and memories’. Sinclair divides authors into ‘pods’ and ‘peds’, writers in cars and writers on foot. J.G. Ballard is a ‘pod-meister. Suburban solipsism: world in a windscreen’; W.G. Sebald is a ped who loses himself ‘in the rhythms of the walk’. Sinclair is a ped with pod-envy: he can’t stop hanging around motorways.
Dining on Stones indulges in narrative games, shifting between fiction, autobiography and history. As Norton sets out on his journey with another artist, a woman called Track, he realises that his novel is writing itself. He receives packages that contain chunks of his book. He reads articles in magazines that appear to be written by him. Eventually fiction and reality collide in the loo of a Travelodge at the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel; it isn’t a light moment. Norton meets his reflection, who
wanted to shift, the insight came to me, as he hammered my face against the mirror for the second time, from being a character, someone I’d observed at the corner of the frame, to the teller of the tale. The author. Ugly word. Worse thought. There are places, the Docklands Travelodge in the small hours of the night is one of them, where fiction and documentary cohabit.
In his previous books, Sinclair has concentrated on the unseen connections between places, but in Dining on Stones ley lines are drawn between characters. Real people emerge out of their fictional counterparts. Norton, Sinclair’s double, explores his ‘lifelong obsession with twins, astral doubles, doppelgängers’. The person who is writing his work for him turns out to be one of his ex-wives. She has collected his notes and put them in order. His description of her version is tantalisingly straightforward, if predictable: it contains ‘everything my chaotic novel failed to achieve: discipline, reason – inevitability’.
Sinclair takes pleasure in the detritus of life. Unlike the Baudelairean flâneur – who lingers wherever there is a glow of light, an echo of poetry, a quiver of life – Sinclair’s urban stroller delights in the diesel fumes of motorways, the junk-spaces of hotels and airports: in-between places. The sociologist Marc Augé calls these ‘non-places’, a series of unconnected zones filled with unconnected objects:
a world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating . . . (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity) . . . where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures . . . a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral.
Decay offers certain compensations, however. In London Orbital the West Drayton footbridge over the M25 ‘trembles and vibrates’ almost erotically. ‘All the powers and thrones and dominions of transport are here, angelic orders of diesel, jet fuel, crop spray, animal and human shit.’ It is not yet a tourist attraction but ‘it ought to be.’
J.G. Ballard has talked about the ‘enormous sort of magic and poetry one feels when looking at a junkyard filled with old washing machines, or wrecked cars, or old ships rotting in some disused harbour’. For Sinclair, junk has the power to resurrect the past. Rodinsky’s Room, written with the artist Rachel Lichtenstein, is one of Sinclair’s most straightforward and absorbing books. David Rodinsky lived above a synagogue at 19 Princelet Street, Whitechapel until he disappeared in 1969. The contours of his life are revealed by the obscure maps, notes, books, clothes and dust that he left behind. But you can see Rodinsky only if you look away – like one of the Elizabethan perspective boxes which ‘rightly gazed upon show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry distinguish form’. Tourists visiting Rodinsky’s home, through ‘the heat of their attention’, assembled him like the golem. But their attention was too strong and ‘whatever was ferreted away behind all this stimulating rubbish has completely evaporated.’ This may be part of their purpose – that people remember the past in order to obliterate it is another of Sinclair’s anxieties. ‘The English love things when they are no longer there,’ he writes in Dining on Stones. ‘A nation of restorers: bodgers, destroyers, resurrectionists.’
Most of Sinclair’s fictional or historical characters, alive or dead, are involved in documenting or capturing the refuse of the past – as collectors, documentary film-makers, booksellers, photographers or junk sellers. Sinclair has been most of these things. In Liquid City, the photographer Marc Atkins, a frequent collaborator of Sinclair’s, describes the burden of being a collector: ‘It’s like carrying a great yoke around. I want to get rid of it. I’d like to see all the people in the photographs warming their hands on their burning images.’ But even if they did torch the photos, Sinclair observes, they would be ‘obliged to take a photograph of that ceremony. The flaming print would become the first item in a new collection.’ There is a sense of relief for Sinclair when he can abandon collecting. Describing a walk from Epping Forest to Glinton in the LRB (he followed the route taken by John Clare when he escaped from the asylum to which he had been committed), he says he felt released from any obligation ‘to log tedious information, to pick up leaflets at every church, to quiz dog walkers or learn the history of every deleted asylum’. And in Dining on Stones he admits: ‘It was going to be a long haul – if I couldn’t learn what to leave out, which estuarial lives to ignore.’ Sinclair doesn’t learn: if he stops collecting, everything will start to disappear. There is a fear in all of Sinclair’s books that things are vanishing, including his own work. In Downriver, he worries that he is ‘being written out of my own story’. And in Dining on Stones another writer takes over the narrative from his alter ego, Norton.
The purpose behind Sinclair’s elevation of obscurity is partly political. To make a stand against the 1980s ethos of market-driven culture, he dug about in the corners, avoiding the popular, re-establishing an avant-garde. Downriver, published in 1991, is an intense survey of the disenfranchised under Thatcher. In a flat on the Isle of Dogs – or ‘Doges’ – he describes how the ‘true monologues’ had soaked into the plaster, and how he released them: ‘I opened my hands. I ran my palms over the walls. I made them bleed. I circled, I squeezed. The voices were there. They came back to me. I asked nothing; I lay on the floor.’ In Dining on Stones, Sinclair clearly feels the lack of an oppressor to push against: he laments the passing of the ‘spectacular corruption, land piracy, North Sea oil revenues given away to underwrite arms deals. Wonderful stuff. For a writer. A jobbing dystopian.’ New Labour’s is a more complicated dystopia to rail against.
Dining on Stones both struggles to have a plot and struggles against it. Norton is anxious about his inability to control what is happening, but at last resigns himself to it:
Nothing is lost . . . No interlude in park or abbey could ameliorate the coming horror of West Thurrock. The nightmare at the Ibis. Journalists and psycho-geographers, urban planners and venture capitalists: what difference? Spin as many versions as you like, the road will have the final word: Barking. The umbilicus. One stop beyond terror, two stops beyond boredom.
Norton/Sinclair promises to write ‘strictly realism from now on: roads, retail parks, bunkers. Books that can be summed up in a sentence. If critics have to wade through four hundred pages to tease out a storyline, they’ll kill you.’ But realism has its own dangers. There is always the chance that another writer will get there first: ‘Ponder a local mystery, the locked room of David Rodinsky, and the phone will ring: a woman with the death certificate, the location of the grave. It gets to the point where you daren’t make a note, jot down a bright idea. That’s why I gave up, years ago, any attempt to publish fiction.’
But Norton, and presumably Sinclair, disapproves of writers who creep around history books looking for a story. He describes his frustration while mocking his own back catalogue:
I refused to have any truck with novelists who lost their nerve and tiptoed into non-fiction, dinky little things about Regency snuff-dribblers, science as anecdote, First War diary, madhouse meditation, incest recovery affirmation, swimming to Scotland . . . Wormy history cooked up to make us feel good about the thin air of the present. Books about pain: crimes reinterpreted, battles refought. Books about roads (for those who will never have to use them).
Sinclair is caught in a dilemma: if you write fiction the story begins to write itself and may write you out (the truth, the real past, what actually happened). But if you start to excavate the past you will probably destroy it in the process. In Dining on Stones the barriers between fiction and non-fiction dissolve but something is lost in the dissolution. Sinclair can’t bring himself to choose a single story from the tangle of possibilities. But there are natural hierarchies: the A13 is a less powerful subject than the M25.