BOOK REVIEW / X-ray vision of the depths: Radon Daughters by Iain Sinclair, Cape pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
IAIN SINCLAIR writes about people who don't know the luxury of having a psychology. They can't repress anything. And it's not just that they fear death or stare helplessly into the hollow drum of selfhood or dread the stupefying materialism of England in the 1990s. In his latest novel, which is full of reverberative promise, ignorant armies of skinheads, Mohicans and Hell's Angels clash by night outside the London Hospital and on the Whitechapel Road. Hilarious puzzlements and broad caricatures make it clear that Sinclair is a visionary writer. The trouble is, he doesn't so much describe his vision as hide it behind a veil of shimmering words.

The plot ostensibly centres on the question of what happens to Todd Sileen, the one-legged author of an unreviewed, remaindered novel, when he decides to pay for his addiction to the radium in X-rays by selling information to a mysterious secret policeman by the name of DrageBell. What really happens is a chorus of quarrelling voices - not just the two principals, but those of Sileen's girlfriend Helen, a TV weathergirl, a tourist guide and former nude model, a sinister artist called Imar O'Hagan, and other gangland maladroits with incongruous motives, who tell a tale of New Age mysticism, horror and intrigue that becomes ridiculously tangled in a web of Gothic misunderstanding. The result is a pleasing (if occasionally impenetrable) cacophony.

The East End background, portrayed with a Dickensian relish, is familiar from Sinclair's earlier attempts to mix bookishness with a sub-culture of random violence. 'Disbelief hung over the dead hamlets like a fog of congenital embarrassment.' The psychopathic wrecking proves to be only a case in point, however. Drage-Bell is also a kind of junkie, who gets his kicks from the works of a forgotten writer called William Hope Hodgson. Sileen becomes the caretaker of Drage-Bell's explosive secrets, and is dispatched to Oxford to look for evidence of the systematic destruction of Hodgson's writing by a don who has a manuscript which purports to be a sequel to Hodgson's weird horror tale, The House on the Borderland.

The encounter precipitates a journey to Cambridge, using leylines, back to London by the River Lea, and finally to the barren landscape of the West of Ireland, where Sileen becomes entangled in the more unlikely elements of Drage- Bell's Borderland vision: namely, fanaticism, obsession and impending cataclysm.

Sileen's journey - and by extension, the narrative itself - is a web of eerie coincidences, a tragicomic jeu d'esprit stuffed with obscure references and musings, and ready-annotated with Swedenborgian marginalia that rise up in angry chatter to comment on the text. Though often celebrated for his fancy prose, Sinclair is acutely conscious of the inadequacy of language. He is fond of vague, all-purpose words like 'thing' or 'stuff' to gesture at some concept that he doesn't want, or doesn't feel able, to particularise. Instead, he suggests, invokes, elicits, tantalises.

His gift for elegant, deadpan incongruity often seems muted here by a puzzled diffidence, and Radon Daughters will no doubt be regarded by many as an academic novel. But it is more like a thriller on the unlikely subject of books ranging from obscure treatises to New Age fluff. Of course, Sinclair is naturally a diffuse writer, and he draws out his impressionistic imaginings sometimes to irritating length. This is inevitable in a way. A fiction intent on following out the author's private trains of association plays for high stakes. The associated imagery that the writer spins out may reverberate on the deepest level of the reader's spiritual being, or fall flat and lie as dead words on the page. At least, in the trance of linguistic close scrutiny that Radon Daughters induces, it's always possible for the reader to pass over sections of language that he finds unduly obtuse, picking up again when the road becomes less rocky and the novelist reverts to satirical comedy whose send-up of literary practice is itself a lesson in how to write, read and love books.