January 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
As one recent commentator on contemporary art has put it, it is certainly hard not to suspect, given the increasing ‘historical loss of distinctions of place’, that ‘the ideological function of site-specific work’ is ‘now to manufacture such distinctions artificially, in order to compensate and cover over the loss’…
Explicitly resistant, then, as his work may well be to the contemporary construction of literature’s latest ideological role as an effective branch of the heritage industry — fetishising the quirky and mildly exotic signs of ‘local colour’ for a global market — the marks of such a problematic complicity with the forces of investment capital cannot be entirely erased from Sinclair’s own works, as he is clearly aware. Indeed it is an alertness to the danger of such complicity which is increasingly, even obsessively, self-reflexively enunciated, in a familiar narratorial conceit, throughout the pages of a novel like Downriver. ‘Would it be ethical to make our discovery public?’, the narrator asks at one point. ‘To endanger this time-warped reservation?’. For to ‘make public’ is always to risk feeding those who need ‘a mythology to underwrite property values’; the ‘standard pre-development scenario’:
When artists walk through a wilderness in epiphanous ‘bliss-out’, fiddling with polaroids, grim estate agents dog their footsteps…The visionary reclaims the ground of his nightmares only to present it, framed in Perspex, to the Docklands Development Board…
What might be at stake in this for the politics of contemporary literature, more generally, is something that I want to consider here through the staging of a ‘confrontation’ between the very different — in some sense, opposed — manifestations of the contemporary novel’s spatial and formal possibilities to be found within the oeuvres of Sinclair and of J.G. Ballard. Such a confrontation is not one that is imposed from the outside. It is, crucially, internal to Sinclair’s writings of the last five years, and, I want to claim, serves, in part, to mediate their developing relations both to the history of the novel form and to the contemporary problematics of place and non-place, of spaces of places and spaces of flows. Yet, as such, this 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. For Ballard’s own style and concerns, in their tension with Sinclair’s, mark something like an introjected point of resistance (which cannot simply be digested or overcome) to the poetics of place upon which the latter continues to insist.
In London Orbital, Sinclair records an actual meeting with Ballard at his home in Shepperton — an act of ‘homage’, he suggests — but we find the first explicit staging of this confrontation a few years earlier in the short book on Crash, written for the BFI Modern Classics series, in which Sinclair addresses, at some length, his particular interest in Ballard’s definitive ‘fascination with a frozen aesthetic of motorways, business parks, airport hotels … A present tense world of swift, sharp sentences’. This is a fiction that ‘grows out of [an] undisclosed, over-familiar urban landscape. Ballard’s trick [is] to forge a poetic out of that which contains least poetry’ (Crash 77). In this way, Sinclair argues, Ballard’s writing conforms, in its own idiosyncratic manner, to a poetics of place. Like the areas of London that, in Lights Out For The Territory, Sinclair parcels out to the likes of Angela Carter, Allen Fisher and Aidan Dun, this fiction can be sited, insofar as it is a particular place, Sinclair claims—’the transitional landscape of gravel pits, reservoirs and slip-roads that surround Heathrow’ — that activates Ballard the poet. The ‘psychogeographical field’ of Crash ‘was posited entirely on the London perimeter, the Heathrow pentagram that Ballard knew so well’.
Yet it is worth noting that there is — by contrast to Fisher or Dun, who fully subscribe to their own versions of an Olsonian poetics of place — a rather deliberate elision of certain key aspects of Ballard’s own self-understanding apparent in such a reading; an elision which is, for example, revealed in discussion with Sinclair’s sometime collaborator Chris Petit. As Sinclair relates the latter’s conversations with Ballard around the possibility of making a film of Crash, he recounts that a major problem for Petit concerned his difficulty in imagining it ‘being set anywhere except the isthmus between the Westway, Heathrow and Shepperton’. The implicit basis for such a view is re-iterated in Sinclair’s own judgement on the David Cronenberg film that was eventually made, where, he writes, ‘the strange particulars of London that Ballard pressed into a Blakean mapping of his own…dissolve into the netherworld of … Toronto’. Yet, as Sinclair is also compelled to acknowledge here, such disappointment was emphatically not shared by Ballard himself. Indeed Ballard would love Cronenberg’s film.
Now, the dissensus at this point can, perhaps, precisely be conceptualised in terms of the dialectic of space and place at work, respectively, in Ballard’s novel and in Sinclair’s reading — or, rather, creative mis-reading — of it. As Petit relates, Ballard himself saw ‘Crash as much a Tokyo novel or a Toronto novel as a London novel’; the reasoning for which is made quite evident in Sinclair’s own interview with the writer:
The areas peripheral to great airports are identical all over the world. You can land at any airport these days and for the first twenty minutes, as you take your cab, you go through a landscape that is identical… read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Jen Gotch