4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Frequently exasperating, but Sinclair's shaggy dog story has a unique dark poetry,
This review is from: Downriver (Hardcover)When Angela Carter no less, whose own work couldn't exactly be described as conventional, is quoted on this book's back cover blurb describing it as "a great, strange [...] fiction about London that follows its own logic", well, I suppose we can't say we haven't been warned. Often more anti-novel than novel, Sinclair's relentlessly downbeat low-life tale has little in the way of plot and makes few concessions to the reader as it meanders its way through the East End of London, as polluted and silt-heavy with the weight of history as the river it describes. Fascinatingly, Sinclair himself seems well aware of the reader's likely reaction, summed up in a fictitious Editor's (self-referential) response to the novel's supposed first draft - "Who is 'I'? ....Too compressed. What slaughter? What psycopath? What nickname?". "What nickname?" goes pretty much to the root of the reader's problem: Sinclair is an inveterate and unashamed namedropper, with his text's cultural referents being too dense and numerous for any single reader to have much chance of catching them all. For example, on a randomly chosen page from the last of his twelve tales, he invokes Joe Orton (fair enough, heard of him), Douglas Bader (sorry, no), Max Roach (vaguely ... a drummer, maybe??) and Michael Sandle (sorry, really haven't the foggiest). Well, call me thick, but it's nice not to have to consult Wikipedia more than once per page. And a lot of the references are just going to be lost on those of us not privileged to live in the Capital: maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner...
So, why bother? Because when Sinclair really finds his form in these twelve murky tales, he is on fire with a dark poetry which is quite unlike anything else in recent British literature. This is particularly true of the darkest of the book's sections, "Horse Spittle" (featuring the disappearance and presumed murder of a nurse turned prostitute), "Eisenbahnangst" (with its chilling Freudian deconstruction of Tenniel's famous illustrations for Lewis Carroll's "Alice Through the Looking-Glass"), and "Prima Donna", which describes Sinclair's supposed encounter with a disturbing character who has a troubling obsession with the victims of Jack the Ripper.
The book's twelve sections essentially narrate the wanderings of a second-hand-book-seller turned writer called (yes, you guessed it) Iain Sinclair, in the ever-shifting and thoroughly unreliable riverine territory of Margaret Thatcher's London Docklands. Although many of the characters he encounters are unashamed grotesques, it is in his portrayal of society's victims (prostitutes; rent-boys; addicts; the mentally ill) that Sinclair really engages the reader's sympathy.
Parts of the book have inevitably dated (the Silvertown memorial?? - presumably topical in Thatcher's last years as Prime Minister), and Sinclair's political satire in "Art of the State" and "Isle of Doges" is unashamedly heavy-handed (though I did love the vision of Dennis Thatcher as the Cerne Giant, naked and brandishing a golf club ...). There is no doubt that this "novel", even more than most of Sinclair's books, makes very considerable demands on the reader. All the same, it's worth making this trip downriver.