unimaginary review, 1990
An awesome cross-ply of the images that haunt the Thames, Downriver is presented not so much as a narrative as a sustained assault on our ideas of history, causality, sequence; our very ideas of narrative. Nevertheless, we constantly expect culmination, closure. Sinclair drags us along like some fast ebb tide, so that we do not “see” but become a bit of wood, a dead poodle, a lump of styrofoam like a head with all the features eroded away. Heart-in-the-mouth, awed and appalled by our sudden exchangeability with the items in his text, we constantly expect the something horrible which exists behind Downriver as an artifact–a construction, a consequence–of all the little horrors Downriver contains. There is no such relief. The tension simply mounts. Sinclair has put us in the position not just of the characters in his book (poring over a copiously illustrated volume of South Sea diseases; inventing and reinventing the lives of the Ripper and his victims); not just of its objects; but of its obsessive events.
Must get to this. Just finishing up on Radon Daughters now. Which as a (conventional at least) novel must be some sort of spectacular failure but which as an extended passage of prose nightmare and beauty is a complete triumph. Utterly absorbing even as it falls apart around you.
Radon Daughters. The business with the X-rays is some kind of gold standard. The tie in with William Hope Hodgson was inspiring. Not Sinclair’s best, and I fear the fiction did not improve thereafter (with the possible exception of Landor’s Tower), but better than anything the Booker Club has yet produced.
But Downriver, the Vessels of Wrath, was nothing short of excoriating.