The Opposite of a Dog

Jenny Turner

  • Radon Daughters by Iain Sinclair
    Cape, 458 pp, £15.99, August 1994, ISBN 0 224 03887 7

‘I’m so glad to hear that your son is having some success at last, Mrs Sinclair,’ said the Queen Mother. ‘We all follow his career with the greatest interest.’

Downriver XII, ‘The Sexing of Stones’

The other week, I went up to the Compendium bookshop in Camden Town, London NW1, to hear Iain Sinclair read from his latest novel. And read he did, the bit about the floating science fiction convention, from towards the end of Radon Daughters.

The heavy metal lads rushed the bar and stayed there, chucking their empties over the side, vigorously debating Robinsonades and Fraudulent Utopias. Graphic novelists in expensive leather jackets entertained wizards of the photocopier by converting their royalty cheques into Irish malt whiskey. They had found their Sargasso Sea. They’d be propping each other up when the first tentacles of fungus plague slid over the rails to suck their spines.

That’s what Sinclair’s writing is like, when you hit upon one of his many satirical routines. It is like impacted Burroughs, Ginsberg, Pynchon, all the big US influences of the last twenty years, squashed up into one, and yet made forcefully new and original. The voice is both familiarish-sounding and unrecognisably bizarre. And it is very, very funny in a somewhat blokeish, manically hilarious way.

Compendium literary evenings are usually frequented by a crowd of fairly faithful regulars: former beatniks, post-situs and surrealists, second-hand book-dealers, pulp fanzine editors and small-press poets, refugees and survivors from the many literary-artistic ‘scenes’ of London’s recent – that is, post-Sixties – subterranean past. This, roughly, is the environment out of which Iain Sinclair’s writing comes. Before he moved into fiction with his first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, in 1987, Sinclair had already been publishing his own, extraordinary poems, his own, extraordinary researches into the secret history of London, with a tiny press he ran from his own East London home, for a good twelve years. He continues to work on the side as a book-dealer, specialising in Beat literature, experimental poetry, pulp writing and ‘modern firsts’, to this very day. So the Compendium audience, roughly, might be said to represent Sinclair’s most immediate constituency, his groupies, his home supporters, the sort of folk most likely to get a fair percentage of his innumerable sideswiping references and bitter, impacted jokes. The audience certainly behaved accordingly. Pretty well everybody was laughing fit to bust.

If you dig yourself deep in towards the heart of Radon Daughters, you will find yourself come to an occult triangulation. It is suggested that there exists an ancient system of leylines, paths of energy and magic, connecting a decayed churchyard in Whitechapel High Street, London El, to a mound of ancient earth in Oxford, and to an ancient earthworks in Cambridge too. This structure the novel counter-poses with other trios, triumvirates and sundry trivia: you can, if you feel like it, draw up a diagram of the novel’s secret structure to prove it,

I have, and I must say it looks pretty spectacular to me. If you look at it from one way, my diagram (or should I call it a trigrarn, really?) has the awesome, esoteric complexity and detail of a Kabala-type mystical Tree of Life. If you look at it from the other direction, mind you, it looks uncannily like one of those advent-calendar mobiles they used to make out of coat-hangers on Blue Peter. That’s how it goes with structures of occult significance. Phenomena which seem loaded with brooding horror by evening have a funny way of looking limp, harmless and rather foolish by the rising light of day.

In one section of the novel – Book II to be precise, entitled, helpfully, ‘The Triangulation’ – Todd Sileen and Rhab Adnam, of whom we will be hearing more, set out to walk this occult mapping from London, picking up a third, a poet, don and Star Trek enthusiast called TCP ‘Germy’ Hinton on the Oxford leg, passing by the grave of John Dee, Elizabeth I’s court wizard, an allegorical theme-park called Milton Keynes and other centres of deep and magical significance, as they go. Why are they doing this? Because they have been sent on a quixotic chase after a texte de fétiche, a putative sequel to ‘The House on the Borderland’, William Hope Hodgson’s not-greatly-known classic of Fin-de-Siècle gothic. For various reasons, they have been led to expect that they may receive important information regarding it at each of the leylines’ nodal points in turn. And do they? Well, sort of.

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