Keywords: Cult writing, Popular Culture, fiction

Title: Dining On Stones

Author: Iain Sinclair

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Media: Book

Reviewer: James Marriott

Iain Sinclair, it would appear, is tired of being Iain Sinclair. This, his seventh novel, is a book with Multiple Personality Disorder, a sustained act of auto-cannibalism that is as infuriating as it is fascinating.

It’s split into three sections, with three narrators (all with the same name, Andrew Norton) and long chunks of text ostensibly written by one Marina Fountain, which are credited in the acknowledgements section as having appeared before elsewhere. This is surely a hoax, but is far from the only element in Sinclair’s novel to blur the line between fact and fiction: thinly veiled real events and people (not least Sinclair himself, as Norton) appear throughout the book, with some appearing in fictional and factual guises (the presence of Mocatta, Nicolas van Hoogstraaten filtered through Charles Grey’s suave villain in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, leads to even muddier waters when Hoogstraaten himself appears).

Dining on Stones, although apparently an extended meditation on the A13 and the nature of authorship, is, ultimately, about being Iain Sinclair. Norton mentions being bored with psychogeography, the success or otherwise of various Sinclair projects, his desire to leave Hackney for a new life among the Albanians of Hastings, and even quotes the work of another ‘cultural historian’, David Seabrook, whose schtick is clearly influenced by Sinclair; but the ghosts of other writers, notably Ballard and Conrad, prevent him from baring anything too personal.

Tired of derives and flaneurs, dismayed by his relationship with a disposable culture and, perhaps, the commercial success of Sinclair-lites like Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair comes dangerously close to rejecting his own legacy in favour of these literary giants. Much of the last third of the book is taken up with elliptical meanderings on Nostromo, arguably Conrad’s greatest novel, although The Secret Sharer, Conrad’s doppelganger story, seems closer to the novel’s preoccupations; and Ballard has written about the England of motorways, retail parks and Travelodges – the same England obsessively covered by Sinclair – far more acutely than Sinclair here or elsewhere. Ironically Sinclair, always tramping about, cataloguing everything, mind teeming with connections and associations, has become ever more self-obsession, while Ballard, increasingly isolated in self-imposed exile in Shepperton, with occasional bursts of TV feed, is one of the great prophets of the modern age.

Sinclair’s body of work increasingly resembles that of Burroughs in its lack of useful distinction between fact and fiction, its mixture of autobiography and flights of fancy, and its shift from purely experimental to narrative forms: Dining on Stones is far more readable than most of Sinclair’s earlier fiction, lacking the density of something like Downriver, and comes closer in style to London Orbital.

But as with that book, there’s a sense here that Sinclair’s struggling to find something to say: London Orbital is more interesting in concept than execution, and is as such a poor cousin to Lights Out for the Territory, Sinclair’s collection of psychogeographical essays on the capital. Similarly Dining on Stones falls short of the intensity of Downriver: the requisite Sinclair obsessions (Performance, rare book dealers, the eastern stretches of the Thames) are there, but the whole just doesn’t gel all that successfully. It’s readable and entertaining enough, but you may find, like me, that the book is in the end insubstantial and a little disappointing. Perhaps, as subjects go, London simply provides a stronger imaginative draw than the M25, and the Thames beats the A13 …

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