Ever listened to a madman rant? Often, buried somewhere in his monologue, there's an idea that is true glittering brilliance. Perhaps you will listen for hours trying to catch another strand of his unusual logic. Or perhaps you will shrug your shoulders and walk away. Reading Iain Sinclair is like that. The idea behind Lights Out for the Territory: Nine Excursions in the Secret History of London
at its most mundane level--and this book has many levels woven into its 386 dense, perplexing pages--is to reflect London by exploring its shadows: its streets, its graffiti, its anachronisms, its forgotten geniuses, and its subcultural characters. But readers, at least readers not from London, are scarcely taken by the hand on a stroll through the city. Instead, they are pushed and pulled, yanked and tossed, given little explanation of what they're reading about or why. More often, Lights Out
feels like a high-speed ride in a stolen car--images recklessly thrown before you, then knocked over by sheer velocity as you pass, pedestrians run over before you've met them--and all the while you never know where you are, since sites, characters, and references are rarely set up or explained.
Instead of mapping out London, its secrets, and hidden characters, Sinclair muddles the picture, leaving this image of London impenetrable except to scholars or those with free months to muck through this unbridled slop. Is it the use of peculiar British words, the liberal tossing of obscure references, or Sinclair's vastly brilliant mind that makes this book so unknowable? Whatever the reason, expect writing that bewilders, such as this chapter beginning: "The saturnine, widdershins excursion of Alan Moore's anti-solar mystagogue, Sir William Gull, as revealed in Chapter Four of the graphic novel, From Hell, begins, traditionally enough, with Boadicea...." Judging from cover blurbs, the British press loves this book. But for all its hype and glowing praise, it's hard to see why. --Melissa Rossi
...when Sinclair stretches himself, he gives the reader the same remarkable sense that "in Elizabethan London it was possible to meet everybody, walk everywhere, be in touch with all human knowledge," which is rare indeed in our time. -- The New York Times Book Review, Michael Hofmann