Sunday, March 13, 2005

Robert Sheppard: You Need Hands: Iain Sinclair's Dining on Stones

Dining on Stones, published in 2004 by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin – a significant change of publisher for Iain Sinclair – is his most postmodern novel. Written in sections that carry the paratextual device of fake authors and title pages, as well as two ‘manuscripts’ by Marina Fountain (a typical self-conscious use of a place name for a character by Sinclair), the text is sprinkled with photographs of South America purporting to be from the hero Norton’s ancestor’s Kodak. (Shades of WG Sebald, I expect the critics will say, but actually a reversion to the photographic accompliments of Lud Heat and other early pieces.) On the other hand, the writing - short paragraphs building up to short chapters - is less ornate, less given to Baroque constructions, more like his non-fiction style, although it is still highly, even hyperactively, allusive.

The Gothic prop of the doppelganger is enacted in the bifurcation of Norton’s character, as a reflection of Sinclair's own division of labour, into Andy, the ‘one who put the hack into Hackney’, (Dining on Stones 286), the documentary ‘urban topographer’ (DS 374), and A.M. Norton, who is the ‘fabulist’, removed to the Hastings area on the Sussex coast. (DS 374) (This division neatly forgets the poet in Sinclair, of course.) Each is haunted by the other, suspecting him of secretly writing his works. The mysterious Fountain also provides two parallel narratives, the first of which, ‘Grays’, was originally published in White Goods (a marvellous book of poems, prose-poems, essays and fictions, published by Goldmark in 2002). A stunningly powerful tale that enacts a ritual killing where the scapegoat takes on the identity (as well as, quite creepily, the hands) of the killer, this is another of the many doublings of the novel. (It’s also my favourite part.)The ‘twin quests of art and murder’ (DS 340) are enacted in the ‘twin tales’ of the Nortons, (DS 364) which itself reflects the imagined ‘composite landscape (leading to composite time)’ of the two principal locations. (DS 351) A superimposed film in a camera suggests that doubleness is implicit in all acts of perception. When the two Nortons meet at a spectral motel, face to face in a mirror, one launches the other through it, to disappear into its double world. The central Ballardian setting of the roadside motel – one even boasts a book-dispenser (containing Ballard’s fictions) - is an appropriate postmodern atmosphere-neutral non-place where ‘fiction and documentary cohabit’. (DS 132)

A picaresque adventure to kidnap entertainer Max Bygraves (they actually pick up the drug-dealer Howard Marks, who had previously made guest appearances in both Sinclair’s fiction and documentary) leads to the death of the Hackney Norton, which affords the narrational ‘I’, if not escape , then the opportunity to continue the narrative: ‘Norton’s third mind had broken cover.’ (DS 370) The characters who follow the Hackney Norton down the A13 (a quest along the eventful tributary of the M25) do escape from the narrative. However, Norton’s re-integration leads him to an erotic liaison with the mysterious Fountain, who reveals that ‘her’ fictions in the book (and the works of the ‘other’ Norton) are in fact pastiches drawn from his own abandoned fragments. In a plot full of improbabilities the revelation that she is in fact the first of his two ex-wives – another thematic doubling - seems not unreasonable. The book recurrently exposes the mechanisms whereby individuals are represented, either by the act of being fictionalised or by the media. Though this is a staple of post-modernist deconstruction, the crucial representation, as often in Sinclair, is of an event not yet enacted, in this case the death of ‘Norton’. Fiction is simply fact waiting to happen, and it is the writer’s responsibility to write the narrative away from calamity, which the fabulist Norton manages.

However, the postmodernity of the novel is not inflected by Sinclair’s customary occult paranoia (although in a tale with patterns of doubling, paranoia is an unavoidable part of its texture). Norton realises that the doppelganger is no ‘fetch’ but merely an effect of textuality, is ‘a grammatical error – he for I’. (DS 357) ‘If they find themselves in the same room, at the same time, the world tilts on its axis,’ the novel comments, but it is a vast intertextual world that ‘tilts’, with the work of Essex-based Joseph Conrad as its ‘axis’. (DS 368) Whereas Downriver had consciously used Heart of Darkness as its fictional double, here that role is taken by Nostromo. Norton flirts quite consciously with the notion that he is a ‘mirror-world’ parallel for the detached semi-outlaw of Conrad’s novel. (DS 422) Conrad and the ancestral Norton are also twinned, as it were, both ‘explorers’ of South America, and both suffering financial losses (in Conrad’s case both in the fiction and in life) Financial loss haunts both books, and throughout Dining on Stones there are negative references to property investment. The margins of Sinclair’s London have reached Hastings because of soaring housing costs (a ‘boom’, if one is a beneficiary), while the ‘Thames Gateway’ of the A13 promises ‘regeneration’ on the inner margins of the expanding capital. The features of a number of Sinclair’s projects are folded into Dining on Stones, thus ensuring its place in the expanding intratext of Sinclair’s oeuvre as another ‘book-length footnote to his other books’, as the critic Nicholas Lezard puts it.

RS March 2005

The above piece was written – in a slightly different form – as an appendix to my forthcoming monograph Iain Sinclair, to be published by Northcote House in the Writers and their Work series. Also available is a pamphlet of reviews of Sinclair’s crop of millennium volumes, Where Treads of Death, from Ship of Fools, 78 Nicander Road, Liverpool, L18 1HZ, at £3 (including p+p). See also my ‘Guessed Disappearance’ on Stride magazine. There is a further essay in preparation for Pages.

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