Down and Out in London


Lights Out for the Territory invites comparison with Patrick Keiller’s documentary London
literally invites the comparison, since Iain Sinclair discusses at some length Keiller’s “ethnographic home-movie.” When novelist (and sometime filmmaker) Sinclair proposes an urban “cinema of vagrancy” based on “arcane pilgrimages,” or describes the way Keiller “stares at London with autistic steadiness…freezes still lifes,” he is
really exalting his own methodology in Lights Out. As its subtitle explains, Lights Out is based on “9 Excursions in the Secret History of London”: purposeful meanders through some of the city’s least glamorous areas, with Sinclair’s eye primed for mundane epiphanies and strange visions. The nod to Greil Marcus’s concept of “secret history” as outlined in his punk book Lipstick Traces clues the reader to another big influence on Sinclair’s project, the Situationists’ praxis of psychogeography (the French anarcho-surrealists would drift through Paris in search of its “zones of feeling”).

Lights Out teems with striking insights and mind’s eye–grabbing images. Sinclair imagines the City of London as a termite colony seething with bowler-hatted drones serving a monetarist queen (Maggie Thatcher). The funeral of legendary East End hood Ronnie Kray forms the centerpiece of a meditation on the English working class’s twin sentimentalities—lovable but lethal dogs like the pit bull terrier, and gangsters who only savaged their own kind and kept the streets safe for little old ladies. Throughout, Sinclair maintains a delicate poise between his prose-poet’s onrush of sense impressions and his acerbic political consciousness; he is sharply attuned to the centuries-thick silt deposits left by the flows of population, money, and power. And as a former employee of a secondhand bookseller, Sinclair’s brain is stacked with hermetic knowledge, encompassing obscure delights such as the work of 19th-century meteorologist/cloud-classifier Luke Howard.

Lights Out is not flawless. Alternately telegraphic and rippling, Sinclair’s prose frequently grinds to a near-halt in snarl-ups of elliptical opacity. Like Don DeLillo in The Names, he’s over-fond of sentences with no verbs—a stylistic ploy that fits his rapture-of-the-gaze p.o.v. His arcane erudition often dissipates the narrative momentum, while the density of allusions and local reference points can tax even an ex-Londoner like myself.

Liquid City, an addendum to Lights Out, will be an easier entry point for all but the most rugged readers, if only because the text takes a back seat to the photography of Marc Atkins (Sinclair’s rambling companion for most of the Lights Out journeys). Atkins’s pictures and Sinclair’s short bursts of text (mostly sketches of the marginal literati and eccentric academics that are his friends and/or heroes) operate independently, only rarely serving as illustration/caption to each other. But the deep affinity between the pair leaps off the page. The lustrous darkness of Atkins’s high-contrast black-and-white photo graphs brings out what Sinclair describes as the city’s “articulate shadows,” the hauntedness of urban space that the writer conjures in both his novels and nonfiction.

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