Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 29 May 2017

Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project by Iain Sinclair

Sometimes, the more you read an author, the more you begin to understand their limitations. And this, I am afraid, is my experience with Iain Sinclair.

I think the first Sinclair I ever read was the book I still regard as his masterpiece, Lights Out for the Territory. This in many ways established the template: part polemic, part memoir, part obsessive recirculating of a limited number of themes (outsiders, marginal artists, the lure of failure, the public squalor of Thatcherism and its subsequent variants, psychogeography, edge lands and ravaged places, alchemy, metaphysical conjecture, flaneurism) – all bound together in an often unstoppable flood of words, often more prose-poetry than coherent narrative, and shot through with a bilious, bitter humour that seems to be panting for its next target.

I think the conclusion I have come to is that Sinclair – and this is something of a contradiction, an impossibility, even – is best in small doses. Because he crams everything into his work and writes what might be called vast collections of digressions there is an argument to say that you can dip in almost anywhere and get the authentic Sinclair experience.

The problem is that one is likely to get that same authentic Sinclair experience…over and over again. This is the case with Ghost Milk.

Sinclair says of himself that De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is the model that bewitched him as a young man and to which he has been in  thrall ever since. (He may also have learnt from De Quincey’s own literary methods: revise, recycle, dismantle, deny, reiterate – beat the reader into submission with yet another unreliable version of a dubious truth.)

The fundamental flaw in Ghost Milk is that its subject – the craven greed and vanity of ‘grand projects’ and especially the social cleansing inherent in hosting the Olympic Games – demands a more ‘linear’, more conventional writer than Sinclair. But that, of course, isn’t his way. There seem to be endless loopings back – just when you think the narrative is about to move to a fresh perspective – as well as quite transparent repetitions with all the hallmarks of recycled material.

And yet, infuriatingly, there are those shards of wickedly dark humour embedded in there, and densely epigrammatic insights of the kind that Sinclair has made his trademark. He is as marvellous a prose stylist as Martin Amis in his pomp, William Burroughs, or William Gibson (in fact, there are some distinct similarities with Gibson, which I hadn’t previously realised), but in a way that is entirely his hallucinogenic own.

But – and this too I suppose must be reckoned as part of his charm – he doesn’t know when to stop. Sinclair has become our own deregulated countercultural Pepys, weaponised prose directed at every conceivable target, a bulging bin-bag of crumpled texts at the ready for every occasion (this, the Guardian says, is how his archives were delivered when purchased by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas).

I will admit that most of his more recent (and ever longer) works have defeated me. But if you haven’t read Lights Out – or Rodinsky’s Room, co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein, about the disappeared Talmudic scholar and mystic David Rodinsky, whose abandoned attic rooms above a disused Spitalfields synagogue were rediscovered in the 1980s – then there is a real thrill awaiting you. Sinclair offers a reading experience that is like little else. Yes, it's a spiel, a riff, a routine (all eminently Sinclairian words), and Sinclair knows it – that’s the point. With their failed walks, their spurious ‘deep mapping’, the psychogeography and dodgy East End shamanism, one might almost say it is writing as performance. And his latest books are so big they might almost be literature installations. But please don’t let this put you off giving him a try. His is a voice for our times – even when he won’t shut up.


Alun Severn

June 2017