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Dining on Stones by Iain Sinclair

From Aldgate to Essex: Ben Thompson enjoys Iain Sinclair's new symphony of cockney cultural resonance, a paean to the A13




Long ago, before New Labour were even thought of, Billy Bragg applied the logic of the hoary US rock'n'roll standard "Route 66" to a thoroughfare closer to his own Barking heart. "A13: Trunk Road to the Sea" might fairly be seen as John the Baptist to this book's Jesus - a pithily prophetic foretaste of Iain Sinclair's psycho-geographic New Testament of "aspirant Americana" ("New Jersey's reed beds translated to Newham") and Pauline revelation on the road from Aldgate to Essex.

"The A13 is a tributary of London's orbital motorway, the M25," explains one of Sinclair's trio of narrators. "But unlike the M25 it goes somewhere, if you can call Southend somewhere." The clear invitation to see Dining on Stones as a seductively linear outgrowth of its necessarily circular predecessor (London Orbital, Sinclair's ecstatically received paean to the highway) should be stoutly resisted. In fact, the reverse is the case: where London Orbital sometimes felt like Sinclair boiling what he does down to its commercial essence, Dining on Stones extrapolates magisterially in all directions.

The now seemingly obligatory JG Ballard quote on the cover (underlining the assertion that this is "the ultimate road novel", with the woefully cheesy subclause "and Iain Sinclair is in the fast lane") rather makes the heart sink. The publication of London Orbital saw Ballard and Sinclair striking up a promotional synergy almost as totalitarian as that between, say, Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby. Happily, far from marking its author's final transition from East End outlaw to toast of the back-slapping year-end lists, this inspired follow-up is a profound and impassioned meditation on the corrosive impact of literary success.

Repairing to a dilapidated landmark modernist apartment block on the Hastings seafront, the first of Dining on Stones' psychedelically overlapping first persons is in flight from "the madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses. No brick that has not been touched, mentioned in a book." With the spectre of creative exhausion looming large in his rear-view mirror all the way down the A21 (just as it did for Joseph Conrad before him), Sinclair somehow finds another creative gear.

Dining on Stones embraces its new location with the same lusty enjoyment that a day-tripper from the capital might ingest a bracing rush of sea air, then returns to Sinclair's old stamping grounds with a renewed sense of purpose. From its snapshot of a Bethnal Green German Shepherd with "dry snout and the eyes of Neville Chamberlain," to a description of miniaturised cameras as "credit cards that ate light," his best prose here has the eternal vividness of a Pompeii streetscape. It also supplies the meta-fictional kick Martin Amis' The Information couldn't quite deliver: "For all I knew he was out there now," one narrative voice bickers of another, "taking the radio gigs, picking up cheques from the London Review of Books, banging on about congestion charges on Channel 4 News ... I certainly wasn't getting the calls."

The "fuzzy" boundary between fact and fiction referred to in the jacket blurb quickly blurs into nothingness. The "drug-dealing comedian" Howard Marks makes a cameo as himself ("voice of Neil Kinnock, face of Bill Wyman"). And admirers of the artist Jock McFadyen - whose 2001 Agnew's Gallery show Beyond Turner's Road was commemorated with a book of postcards and a (then) mystifying text fragment by Sinclair which can now be identified as work in progress from Dining on Stones - will see something they recognise in the painter Jimmy Seed, whose paintings of the A13 provide the spur for this book's voyage down that "semi-celestial highway".

Iain Sinclair's readership clusters around two poles. At one extreme would be a notional super-being - Iain Sinclair, say - who had physical experience of all the places he has ever written about. At the other would be the people who've been to none of them, to whom these symphonies of cockney cultural resonance must seem like a spun-sugar Winter Palace of the fictional imagination. They are actually something quite different, but every bit as spectacular: the work of a man with the power to see things as they are, and magnify that vision with a clarity that is at once hallucinatory and forensic.

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