Downriver (or, the Vessels of Wrath) Summary

Iain Sinclair

Downriver (or, the Vessels of Wrath)

Certain English novels, those of Kingsley Amis and A.N. Wilson for example, exhibit the kind of insular chumminess that many American readers find at best confusing and at worst annoying. While Iain Sinclair’s highly acclaimed second novel is not entirely immune to this charge, DOWNRIVER nonetheless overcomes it on the strength of its narrative extravagance and its anti-Thatcherite sympathies. The setting here is London’s East End, not the sanitized locale of the long-running lower-middle-class English soap opera EAST ENDERS but of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel and Arthur Morrison’s Mean Streets in the process of being transmogrified into that perfect example of Eighties greed, English-style: Docklands and its infamous Canary Wharf.

Invoking William Burroughs (“I just walk around, and the stories walk through me”), Sinclair “cuts up” his novel into twelve tales, twelve “vessels of wrath,” quick-cutting from scene to scene, leaving nothing fixed, least of all time, other than a vague sense of place. In this collage art of parody and pastiche, the characters are decidedly Dickensian but the approach is clearly postmodern as a peripatetic “Iain Sinclair” works up material for a film documentary on the fast-disappearing East End. It is an art of “baroque realism,” of found objects, odd juxtapositions and superimposings (not least the nineteenth on the twentieth century), deploying an extraordinary array of literary echoes, everyone from Kathy Acker and Peter Ackroyd through Blake and Carroll, Joyce and Kafka to Nathanael West and Jeanette Winterson. The result is at once dreamlike and wickedly funny, and funniest when dealing with Margaret Thatcher, rendered here via Salman Rushdie’s portrait of Indira Gandhi in MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, as the Widow, and with Docklands, as Vat City, a conflation of papal state, Venice (the Isle of Dog/Doges), Blake’s Albion, Eliot’s Unreal City, Baum’s Oz, Alice’s Wonderland, and Albert Speer’s Third Reich. What John Clute calls Sinclair’s “not remarkably powerful grip of narrative syntax” (quoted preemptively in DOWNRIVER) proves no liability in a work whose individual parts, everything from the twelve tales to single sentences, are so brilliantly (if often scabrously) conceived, so perfectly executed, and so wildly imaginative, at once timely and intertextually timeless.