Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge (eds.), City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), hbk., £34.99/$69.99, 210 pps., ISBN: 1847181538, ISBN 13: 9781847181534.
Martyn J. Colebrook
Published following the City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair international conference at the University of Greenwich in June 2004, this collection of essays is a comprehensive, thorough and seminal contribution to the current corpus of studies focusing on the diverse oeuvre that constitutes the output of one of the key figures in contemporary British literature. Although deserving significant recognition and critical reception as a stand-alone text, City Visions joins texts by Robert Bond (Salt Publishing), Alex Murray (Continuum) and Brian Baker (Manchester University Press) as evidence of the recent surge of studies and interest in Iain Sinclair’s work. The reason for this sudden academic interest is open to speculation but each contributor asks the necessary question of why, as Alex Murray remarks, ‘the field of contemporary literary studies has found the task of analysing Sinclair’s writing problematic’.
Given that the subject of this collection is the living exemplar of the London flâneur, a figure with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city, and the author of a range of intensive, experimental, complex and avant-garde responses to its different rhythms and energies, then it seems appropriate that City Visions should choose to let its readers traverse the varied and eccentric pathways of Sinclair’s work using a sequence of diverse contexts and foci. Sinclair’s scope and range is reflected in the composition and organisation of this collection which addresses the three dominant aspects of his output: prose, poetry and documentary filmmaking.
The collection is jointly edited by Jenny Bavidge and Robert Bond who indicate the scholarly framework in their introduction, which opens with a swift survey of Sinclair’s work to date. Their grouping of different essays into sections such as ‘Iain Sinclair in Context’, ‘Culture and Critique’, ‘Connections’ and ‘Space’ establishes a structure which highlights possible overlaps in the contributors’ work. This in itself also ensures the editors achieve their aim of creating a ‘dialogue between them all’, meaning the reader is thus able to increase their ‘understanding of Sinclair’s own intrinsically diffuse and disparate work’.
The first salvo in this sequence comes from Robert Bond, who identifies and explicates the origins of Sinclair’s work from the middle of the 1970s as a transformation of the ‘Vorticism aesthetic’ of Wyndham Lewis. In developing this analysis, Bond also highlights similarities in the nebulous ethos of the practice Sinclair adopts and Vorticism, through his own ‘furious undefinability, obscurity and singularity’.
Questions of context, namely those in which Sinclair repeatedly positions himself, are addressed by Robert Sheppard in his thought-provoking article, ‘Everything Connects: The Cultural Poetics’. Sheppard sets out deliberately to avoid the problems of neat categorisation by suggesting that, as opposed to the trajectory of the British Poetry revival, Sinclair’s own murderously allusive cartography simultaneously asserts and deletes lines of influences, in the process problematising his status as one who deals with the ‘outsider figure’.
Peter Barry offers a melange of the creative and the academic in his analysis of Sinclair’s actual ‘style’, using a narratological approach to focus on different competing ‘drives’ and energies within the notorious prose style that he has come to cultivate with such precision and finesse. Considering the jarring and conflicting shifts in register, tone and form that populate Sinclair’s work, Barry highlights the spectacular pyrotechnics at work, which the author seems unable to avoid or resist returning to.
Political dimensions are the dominant focus of all the essays in the section entitled ‘Culture and Critique’. Alex Murray and Ben Watson provide two responses that have ‘social agency’ as concerns. Watson’s uses The Kodak Mantra Diaries to provide a powerful rendering of how countercultural origins in Sinclair’s writing strike the reader at different levels, invoking and returning to the ‘socio-cultural determinants, political contexts and complex aesthetic backgrounds’ that haunt the texts and exist as both fundament and backdrop. Comparatively, Murray’s rigorous article uses the work of Walter Benjamin and introduces the idea of a ‘genealogy’ to describe the processes of Sinclair’s responses to and critique of the different ways in which history has been the subject of appropriation, hijacking and rewriting in contemporary British politics.
Moving into the territory of Sinclair’s filmmaking, Esther Leslie focuses on London Orbital and the actions of ‘resistance’ which underlie his approaches and methods. Such a ‘refusal’, as Kirsten Seale terms this resistance, leads to Sinclair’s attempts to subvert and reject the panoptic presence which Leslie highlights in her contribution.
A brief survey of the other contributions in this volume observe David Cunningham’s sharp exploration of the relationship between Sinclair and J.G. Ballard, suggesting that ‘the textual presence of Ballard is a rather more disturbing presence within Sinclair’s writing than are the familiar allusions to Blake, Dickens, Conrad et al.’ Brian Baker takes the reader into the labyrinthine poetics of J.H. Prynne and Sinclair, along with the appearances by Blake, Pound and Olson, to name just a few of the many figures on the index of textual influences who are resonant. In the final section, David James and Sebastian Groes separately interrogate spaces and the ‘city visions’ to which the title of the collection refers.
As the editors reminds us, Ben Watson observes that ‘as a literary phenomenon, the Sinclair freak out is unique’ and when we consider the varied critical and contextual approaches employed by each contributor, the deployment of such an adjective as ‘unique’ is, in this case, appropriate if not necessary. In short, the elegant and sophisticated responses to Sinclair’s work that are found throughout this volume reflect the fierce intelligence and erudition which he has brought to the process of memorialising, interrogating and documenting the arcana found within the cosmopolitan behemoth we know as ‘London’. City Visions is and will remain an invaluable and essential critical tool for the detectives, investigators and chroniclers of Sinclair’s artistic portfolio.
To Cite This Article:
Martyn J. Colebrook, ‘Review: Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge (eds.), City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2008/colebrook.html. Accessed on [date of access]