reviewed by Paul McRandle

BORN A WELSHMAN, become a failed film maker and walker of London roadways, a gardener, a dealer in used books, Iain Sinclair has remained throughout a writer who compresses the leaves of his own life with those of pulp crimes novels, treatises on magic, manifestos, and architectural history into a dense, mouldering prose long on evocation. His presence, even in his fiction, is so clearly felt, that it is impossible to distinguish history from the dramatized recreation of his biography.  In Lud Heat, he appears as gardener, wandering London’s green spaces; in White Chappell Scarlet Tracings he prowls the land for rare books while the Ripper murders unfold in another time; and in Downriver he searches for Thameside settings to shoot a documentary.  

Iain Sinclair 


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Always the act of telling a story makes him complicit with the story told, most especially where those are stories of murderers tied to ritual.  In Lights Out for the Territory, however, Sinclair plays with the pretence of abandoning fiction, his visionary world constantly collapsing into reality, demonstrating pointedly that beyond any concerns for mode Sinclair is a writer to whom words matter most.  And it is with words on streets that Sinclair begins Lights Out, pawing his way from graffito to graffito, leaving the reader with strings of noun phrases almost as disconnected as the street scrawling.  They are something akin to the riverboat jargon in Mark Twain, from whom Sinclair borrowed the his title, and in the bravado of the narrative voice, Twain and other American writers, particular the Beats, can be heard.  For Sinclair, London is an unmapped territory, still open for exploration. The essays of Lights Out For The Territory proceed by dislocation rather than argument, the conditions of various walks transposed into poetic images.
Yet, by and large, the book is a lament for a city losing its history, paving over its districts in decay, and increasingly supervising the lives of its inhabitants.  Sinclair concentrates on the tagger, reclaiming bricks walls with his spray canister, as much as the more official artists sitting in squalid studios or glum, unvisited galleries.  He is sympathetic to the metaphorical fauna of the city, its bulls and bears, its Isle of Dogs and the rottweilers paraded in working-class districts, viewing all of them as endangered species if not quite beloved.  And he advances by detours, rapidly changing subjects as he finds himself shunted about the city, either by his own wishes or because he has no choice.  London’s endless distractions as much as its ground plans build the shape of the book, and yet, even with his barrage of references, Lights Out pulls beyond the local, widening its concerns with the city to a manic search for meaning.  He will not settle for nostalgia and pillories those who misremember the past; Sinclair would rather be stumbling about London as it is now, its meanings just out of reach, than coddling himself with visions of former glory.
Naturally, Sinclair is at home with this world of words from which the meaning is evaporating.  He delights in the mix of the cryptic and the bullying: “tikb.  FUCK YOU. dhkp.  Nostalgia/ is/ a/ weapon.” Signs missing their letters suggest new languages, an “oeve belle.” He intends to take walks in the shapes of various consonants, but never follows the full flow of his loops.  And so he remains poised somewhere between imposing his own meaning upon London, and finding new meanings within it, always offering up in his quick, fretful skitterings across the map the evidence of an intriguing sensibility caught up in one of the world’s great cities.

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