BOOK REVIEW / East End tour-guide goes to hell: 'Radon Daughters' - Iain Sinclair: Jonathan Cape, 14.99

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There is an Iain Sinclair that we can know, and another Sinclair that leaves us behind and takes off into a foggy realm beyond our understanding. You cannot read very far into Radon Daughters, Sinclair's new fictional jungle, without realising this fact, and marvelling that both writers can co-exist in the same work.

The first Sinclair has a story to tell, a symbolic urban quest in which the object sought is a text, but the search for it involves mystical enquiries, leylines, runic phenomena and all manner of visionary hanky-panky, constructed with excitement and with Hitchcockian touches of concealed bombs, guns and assassins. The other Sinclair is passionately disposed not to tell a story at all. One senses his bullying presence on every page: a sidetracking, allusive, garrulous, noisy mimic, a would- be Celt and East End tour-guide, whose interpolations wrap the narrative in verbiage or bundle it out of sight.

As far as the plot can be laid bare, it goes something like this: the main character in Radon Daughters is Todd Sileen, a man of querulous mien with an artificial leg. He is addicted to the radium in X-rays, whose destructive beams he seeks out like a junkie looking for a fix. Like Sinclair, he is in the book trade and can offer impromptu disquisitions on obscure authors (though he doesn't seem to have heard of Salman Rushdie). Although he is poor, a sleepwalker and a cripple, he is generously allowed an energetic sex life with Helen who forecasts the weather on television and who, along with two girlfriends, is involved with a sinister artist called Imar O'Hagan.

Sileen sells information about the East End underworld to a copper called Drage-Bell who is fixated by a forgotten writer called William Hope Hodgson, author of The House on the Borderline. Outraged that an Oxford scholar called Hinton has discovered the manuscript of an unknown work, Drage-Bell sends Sileen to 'snatch Hinton's bundle or don't come back'. Sileen journeys to Oxford with a holy fool called Rhab Adnam (most of Sinclair's characters have names that sound like anagrams - this one is presumably a conflation of 'Abraham', the mad 16th-century beggar, and DNA), discovers the manuscript has been sent to a Cambridge don called Undark, travels there, discovers that the book's accompanying photographs indicate a sacred destination in the west of Ireland, and so . . .

In the meantime, the characters' Swedenborgian musings about heaven and hell start to mesh with the author's conviction that there is a mystical 'triangulation' between Whitechapel, Oxford and Cambridge. Are we on the trail of the ultimate leyline, between the author's home in London E1 and the mouth of Hell?

Search me, guv'nor, as Sileen would say. Sinclair throws the whole of the English language at you, beginning with an apocalyptically rendered East End, where around the London Hospital and the Whitechapel Road minatory gangs of Class War desperados gather: 'Tophats to flatcaps, skinheads, berets, Mohicans, Rastas, Goths, bikers, ballgowns . . . a swish of Bishops, the president and Vice-President of the hospital, physicians, surgeons, beadles, watchers, waiters, urchins, sewage-toshers . . .'; and moving on to the politer shores of Oxbridge: 'The meal in college was dreadful: more high stool than high table'. To suggest a reekingly decadent, imploding, entropic universe, he deploys a swaggering Blitzkrieg of words that bounce off each other like rocks, sometimes sounding as if they might not be English at all:

'Sileen was done with conversation. Where was the gelt? The plates of his skull were drowning in alluvial slop. He trenched a clabbered groin . . . Sileen fought his bonds; the floor beneath his trestle was riparian tar. Fetid as Channelsea's grimpen quag . . .'

When he relaxes his crazed lexical attack for a rare moment, it's to drop into a disconcerting Cockney idiom, all dropped aitches and characters straight from Minder. It all leaves you exhausted but oddly invigorated. And through it one glimpses, with gratitude, occasional tantalising narrative points and a very self-conscious literary sensibility at work.

Sinclair may write like an anti- establishment gangster, but his novel is stuffed with as many bookish nods and winks as a monologue by John Sessions. The Joycean idiom of his prose throws up echoes of Ulysses that are sometimes a little too close to the original: 'He is tense, unaroused. The length of the morning still in his throat: roof slopes, pigeons, sphagnum dressing the cracks. Helen /Isabel unwraps croissants; bites - buttery flakes cling to her wet lips'. At other times, a sour romanticism suggests a brief alliance between Mervyn Peake and Tom Waits: 'Creature of twilight, his chalk face and feral eyes scorched through the rusty nape of evening light'.

The author's liking for literary in-jokes and walk-on parts for his friends and rivals - Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock, Iain Banks (whose beard is described as 'cultivated and sardonic') - are bits of writerly luvviedom unworthy of so sophisticated an artist. But then, who would not wish to be included in a work so wildly exuberant that it puts the everyday productions of British fiction to shame?

I hated it and I loved it. A great deal of Radon Daughters is howlingly inept - the title, the lunacies of the plot, the name-dropping, the bogus metaphysics, the undifferentiated female characters, the stilted dialogue - but every time I tried to hurl it aside, something would bring me back: one of the crowd scenes at which Sinclair is strikingly adept, his offhand humour, some startling flurry of images (Sileen, lovelorn, looks at a letter from Helen and sees 'letters terminated by a warning row of Xs. A barbed-wire kiss-off. A cancelled insult'). I suspect Sinclair is a genius. I've no doubt that, down at the OK Corral of fancy prose, he can outgun virtually any writer in England, including Martin Amis, James Hamilton-Paterson and Jonathan Meades. I just wish that Radon Daughters communicated more than visions of street violence and New Age prophesies, and his own linguistic brilliance.

(Photograph omitted)