IAIN SINCLAIR, Lights Out For The Territory
MARC ATKINS and IAIN SINCLAIR, Liquid City
Village Voice, August 18 - 24, 1999
Lights Out For The Territory invites comparison with Patrick Keiller's brilliant documentary London--literally invites the comparison, since Iain Sinclair discusses at some length Keiller's "ethnographic home-movie".
When novelist/film-maker Sinclair proposes an urban "cinema of vagrancy" based on "arcane pilgrimages", or describes the way Keiller "stares at London with autistic steadiness... freezes still lifes", he is really exalting his
own methodology in Lights Out. As its subtitle explains, the book is based
on "9 Excursions In The Secret History of London": purposeful meanders
through some of the city's least glamorous areas, with Sinclair's eye primed for mundane epiphanies and strange visions. The nod to Greil Marcus's concept of "secret history" as outlined in his punk treatise Lipstick Traces clues the reader to another big influence on Sinclair's project, the Situationist praxis of psychogeography (the French anarcho-surrealists would drift through Paris in search of its "zones of feeling.")
Lights Out teems with striking insights and mind's eye grabbing images. Sinclair imagines the City of London as a termite colony seething with bowler-hatted drones serving a monetarist queen (Maggie Thatcher). The funeral of legendary East End hoodlum Ronnie Kray forms the centrepiece of a meditation on the English working class's twin sentimentalities--loveable but lethal dogs like the pitbull terrier, and gangsters who savaged only their own kind and kept the streets safe for little old ladies. Throughout, Sinclair maintains a delicate poise between his prose-poet's on-rush of sense impressions and his acerbic political consciousness; he is sharply alert to the centuries-thick silt deposits left by the flows of population, money and power. And as a former employee of a second-hand bookseller, Sinclair's brain is stacked with hermetic knowledge, encompassing obscure delights such as the work of 19th Century meteorologist/cloud-classifier Luke Howard.
Lights Out For the Territory is not flawless. Alternately telegraphic and
rippling, Sinclair's prose occasionally grinds to a near-halt in snarl-ups of elliptical opacity. Like Don DeLillo in The Names, he's over-fond of sentences with no verbs--a stylistic ploy that fits his rapture-of-the-gaze p.o.v.. His arcane erudition sometimes dissipates the narrative momentum, while the density of allusions and local reference points can tax even an ex-Londoner like myself.
Liquid City, an addendum to Lights Out, will be an easier entry point for all but the most rugged readers, if only because the text takes a back seat to the photographry of Marc Atkins (Sinclair's rambling companion for most of the Lights Out journeys). Atkins's pictures and Sinclair's short bursts of text (mostly character-sketches of the marginal literati, eccentric academics and obscure film makers that are his friends and/or heroes) operate independently of each other, only rarely serving as illustration/caption to each other. But the deep affinity between the pair leaps off the page. The lustrous darkness of Atkins's high-contrast black-and-white photographs brings out what Sinclair describes as the city's "articulate shadows", the haunted-ness of urban space that the writer conjures in both his novels and non-fiction.