I first read Iain Sinclair when I lived in London, about nine years ago. I quickly understood that the great sprawling city, the black hole of the island from which no money can escape, had generated its own very specific mode of literature; part fiction, part archaeological exploration, part mythographic occult ritual. Of the writers associated with this genre (if that doesn’t seem too limited a term), such as Peter Ackroyd and the Michael Moorcock of ‘Mother London’ and ‘London Bone’, my favourite was Iain Sinclair. I’ve been reading his new book, ‘Ghost Milk’, another unclassifiable addition to his metastasising oeuvre. There’s an excellent article/review about Sinclair by Robert Macfarlane in tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) Guardian, which is already up online (although, obviously, you should go out and buy the paper too).
Macfarlane, an excellent writer about the natural world, is perhaps over-critical about the new book. I agree with one of his criticisms in the article, about the ill-advised (although tempting) equivalences made between New Labour and the Nazis, the Grand Project and Guantanamo etc, but I think Sinclair’s work is so idiosyncratic that any response to it must be entirely subjective. He resists normal modes of criticism, and in a sense any reviews of his books, whether they are labelled fiction or non-fiction, can be whittled down to an essential, condensed statement: if this is the kind of thing you like, then you’re going to love it; if not, then you’re not.
If this is the kind of thing you like, then the only lack the reader might feel in Sinclair’s books is that they are finite. Ideally, the emblematic Sinclair text wouldn’t be a few hundred pages between hard or soft covers; it would be a bin bag or a holdall crammed with scraps of paper, bursting notebooks, blurred photographs, eerie recordings and cryptic video images, and part of the experience of “reading” it (or constructing it) would be to walk the distances covered in the narrative (even though the word “narrative” is completely redundant here). Criticising Sinclair on anything other than his own terms is futile; you may as well try to criticise William Burroughs or JG Ballard, writers who created similarly hermetic, hyper-mythologised interior words which they mapped onto a plastic environment, and who fooled people into thinking that the process worked the other way around. Macfarlane is right in that Sinclair offers no real alternatives in ‘Ghost Milk’ to the furious condemnation of the Olympic project in East London, but I don’t feel he’s obliged to do so. Sinclair does not see London in the same way as Peter Ackroyd, as something organic and constantly evolving; his perspective is not as objective as this. He is one of the denizens of this world, and he retains the right to react with fury when his familiar haunts are being so ruthlessly disturbed for no other reason than vanity, pride, hubris and money.
What I like most about Sinclair is that his books are not self-contained; his work sprawls over many volumes, some labelled fiction, some labelled poetry, others labelled travel or history. They are chapters of the same immense work, a combination of memoir and deep, urban topographical analysis. In which case, I wouldn’t point to any specific volume as the best introduction. Pick up anything by him and start reading, and then work your way backwards and forwards from there.