Dining on Stones by Iain Sinclair

A metropolitan kaleidoscope
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The Independent Culture

Iain Sinclair doesn't practise safe text but floods us with cut-ups of data in which his own creative position is itself a cut-up. His subject, in his non-fiction and fiction alike, is urban and cultural entropy, which demands a pathologically entropic narrator. But why not two - or three, or four narrators? That way, their observations can be delivered in gobbets of counterpoised detail, yet remain so involuted that their reality cannot be pinned like butterflies in a case. Dining on Stones, his new novel, is therefore remarkable: Sinclair lets us get as close as he dares to his subject, and himself. Beans are being spilt here, big time; something elegiac's going on.

The premise here is that two Nortons, a writer and his unwanted shade, are producing a book based on the A13, which runs from London to Southend. It will reflect on the meaning of apparently undecipherable cultural, architectural and historic detail. Which Norton is in charge of Dining on Stones? And why are there chunks from another writer, Marina Fountain, and from the great-grandfather of one of the Nortons, whose diaries covered a doomed expedition to Peru that recalls Conrad's "The End of the Tether".

One uses the word "narrative" warily. Sinclair has delivered a story, but following it requires an appetite for literary trig points, cultural landmarks, and signs and marks that begin to glow oddly like half-developed images in his eerie darkroom. The novel's synchromesh is put to the test. Three or four "authors" are one thing; the highly ambitious scope of their visions, and relationships, is quite another. This ain't Steadicam literature. One is tempted to skim the novel, or read it where its pages happen to fall open - a re-collaging of its own collage.

But that would be a grievous mistake. Dining on Stones should, in all its fractious velocity, be chased down. The fragmentalised details become more significant than the rare moments of obvious linearity. Pay attention, and you'll not only get a multiple detective story, but also the imaginative plasma from which it emerged.

Sinclair's meta-fictional gunk is made up of lists of observations, crumple-zones of scenarios and metaphors, mini-essays on anything from Full Metal Jacket to RD Laing. We crunch across the textual gravel in east London and Hastings in the wake of "the primal Dagenham limper, the Ur-gimp", slouching not towards Bethlehem but to Beckton Alp. We are nobbled by fetches, the picaresque fictional devices that Sinclair uses to kick-start yet another riff: murders, doppelgangers of person, place, history or even emotion.

He scumbles scenes and ideas like a metropolitan obeah-man: Conrad, Pissarro resting on a crimson couch, cabbala chic, Michael Barrymore's comeback, Basra, a gull with a face like Virginia Woolf, the classification of clouds over Plaistow. It's like Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project about Paris, but now fulminating out of Hackney.

Sinclair's high baroque actuality throws up fabulous scintillas: Snip Silverman, who has "shrivelled into his coat like a ferret into woodchips"; Robert Mitchum's hair, which has out-acted him; "Polish darkness imported to Lea Valley Congo... a mad, undigested narrative of colonialism and fiscal voodoo in Dalston"; or muzak "like piss-fountains splashing on pink ice".

Like the A13, Sinclair "starts somewhere, goes somewhere, keeps on until it's purged of contempt". We hurtle through the conflicting gravities of ideas, observations, actions - and admissions of love and tenderness. The author is not, after all, a mad, hypocrite lecteur stumbling eternally into roseate Purfleet dawns over the local soap factory.

Sinclair's contempt is ultimately a search for content; a quest unlikely to be clarified by the regeneration of the Thames Gateway, or by the Deputy Prime Minister's absurdly designated "liveability agenda". What have these things to do with the middle ground, the "pertinent ectoplasm" that has been airbrushed out of the cultural canvas?

"Stones", says one of Sinclair's characters wistfully, "want to go on being stones." One hopes that Sinclair wants to go on being at least one of the Sinclairs that produced this lairy bungee-jump into King Lear's eternally present "midway air".