November Bookbag

With all the films I watch and games I play, do I even get around to that most old-school of activities, i.e. reading? I do, definitely – although I have to admit that I miss having a job where I could just spend an entire day (or even week, when I was lucky!) reading, whether it’s novels, plays, poems, articles or reviews. Them were good days!

That’s one of the things I enjoy most about holidays, and where I sometimes think that expensive travel is wasted on me: I often get most of a kick out of the travelling done in my head. During a recent vacation I got to finish not one but several books, so here are some thoughts on them for my first ever Bookbag!

Lights Out for the Territories (Iain Sinclair)

Sinclair first popped up on my cultural radar when his character Andrew Norton, the Prisoner of London, appeared in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century. Then, when I recently started a teaching assignment at university, I found Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territories lying on a shelf. Conditioning through repetition working as well on me as it does, I made Amazon happy by ordering the book.

Is it a good holiday read? I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, as I’m the kind of reader who might go for War and Peace for the poolside in Sharm El Sheikh. Sinclair’s book is not the sort of thing to read in one go, tough; for one thing, it is a collection of essays originally published separately and as such doesn’t benefit from being read as one coherent work, for another it’s insanely dense. Sinclair’s approach is basically to ‘read’ London as a great, multiform text, approaching it from different angles, from sifting through the detritus of (sub)urbanĀ  culture while walking the city to scrying the signs at Ron Kray’s funeral. Is this psychogeography? Shamanism? The rants of a smart, although at times rather tiring poet/essayist? Most likely it’s all three at the same time. I can definitely see why Alan Moore would find him interesting – some of Lights Out feels like the punk offspring of Moore’s From Hell and Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography. Sinclair’s writing is fascinating to experience, but I’d definitely recommend him as an occasional snack rather than as a meal, lest you come away with a major case of literary indigestion.

Wildlife (Richard Ford)

Every now and then I come across a book or a film that makes me feel I’m not old enough for this. Richard Ford’s Wildlife definitely had that effect – which is strange, as the novel’s narrator is a 16-year old. There is something about the novel’s pace and demeanour, though, that makes it feel old – past middle age and past its mid-life crisis. (Okay, it is likely that the narrator is actually considerably older and looking back at his 16-year old self, but it’s not just the telling of the story, it’s also the young man’s words and actions that feel like the young version of the narrator wasn’t all that different from his older, narrating self.)

Which is not to put down the novel (or rather novella, at a slim 160 pages). Wildlife is one of those books where no word seems out of place. This story of an early ’60s marriage falling apart is sparse (though not to the point of Carver’s short stories), very far removed from Sinclair’s anarcho-shamanism, and methodical in a way that becomes strangely hypnotic. The theme is as shopworn as they come, but in Ford’s style it takes an uncanny, destabilising quality that makes the story work as something very different from your usual domestic drama.

I’m not sure the narrator (or his younger self) works for me, though – he is either the oldest 16-year old there has ever been or he’s on some of that groovy, early-’60s Valium. There’s internalised and there’s somnambulant, and the character crosses that line… very slowly.