London: City of Disappearances
edited by Iain Sinclair
I used to believe that the best writing, or at least the best novels, tended to the polyphonic: incorporating multiple voices, building a context out of the balance between perspectives. Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder. Is it actually possible for any one person, however gifted, to actually create multiple different voices? The trite answer is simply to say that is in this gift that genius consists, but I’m not at all sure that’s enough. I am not speaking, here, of one person going beyond their personal experiences of gender or ethnicity or class; nor am I even speaking of the ability to create a character who thinks differently than oneself. I’m wondering about the possibility of creating in one’s head, or on the page, multiple different entities who use language in individual ways, who experience the world in physically different ways (one perhaps having a greater tense of the tactile world, another being visually oriented, another being wrapped up in their own skull), who have different talents and gifts and defects and who perceive the world through those lenses. Whose heads are put together in fundamentally distinct ways.
Of course that’s the sort of thing that can be simulated to some extent; that’s what character creation is. And if these simulations resonate enough with our own experiences, we can say that they seem real. But to fundamentally create characters, to bounce them off each other — of course the art of the novel lies in the structure of their interactions, as well, and so therefore derives from the novelist’s individual sensibility, and therefore the sense of polyphony the novelist creates is a myth. But is even the appearance of polyphony credible? Or are certain aspects of the novelist inherently embedded in whatever character they create? Again, genius would tend to have fewer of these limitations; but to what extent is even the greatest genius so limited?
(I might note that inherently collaborative forms, theatre and film and comics, don’t strike me as any more effective than prose. This may be because I instinctively respond to these forms less profoundly than I respond to pure use of language. But it also might be because, although there is a dialogue between artists in the creation of the work, the dialogue a) is between artists and not between characters, and/or b) operates on different levels, so that what the actor brings to the script is wholly different than what the writer brought. To the extent that different actors interact in character, they’re still interacting in the form of the single voice that wrote the script. Or so it seems to me.)
None of these thoughts or questions are particularly profound, and indeed are rather obvious. But the sense of multiple voices living within a text or narrative still seems to be a goal for writers and readers alike. And this is interesting to consider in the context of Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances.
This mammoth anthology is stuffed with the matter of London; which, to Sinclair, means everything that’s not there. It’s a kind of paradox: one of the great cities of the world, notable for its variety and range, is defined (to Sinclair) by absences. He builds a convincing case, creating a literary London familiar and strange, violent and seedy and unknowable as well as lyrical and beautiful.
And when I say ‘he’, I do mean that there’s a sense that Sinclair himself is working through his collaborators to build his London. The volume has a whole has the sensibility of one of Sinclair’s own works, although it’s overall less elliptical and stylised in its prose. But given that, it is, still, the creation of multiple different individual perspectives. It is a true polyphony, which resolves into a harmony — and it happens to be a harmony stylistically familiar to those of us who know Sinclair’s other work.
Sinclair does have some small pieces in the book himself, as does his wife and some past collaborators like Rachel Lichtenstein and Alan Moore (who contributes one of the longest pieces in the book). But much of the book is by other hands, and it’s Sinclair’s cunning juxtaposition of text with text that gives them a sense or voice that they might not otherwise have had. His editorial creativity shows not only in terms of who he approached for pieces, but how he assembled their work. The book becomes a collage, and the texts seem to speak to each other, forming a network as any city does of landmarks and shared experiences.
(It’s interesting to me to compare this book to Humphry Jennings’ book Pandaemonium, another collage-like anthology which assembles disparate texts from across a couple centuries to create the sense of how England dealt with the Industrial Revolution. It’s unfinished, though, and the texts there were pre-existing writings chosen deliberately to fit Jennings’ theme. Not a perfect match, then, but worth considering.)
There’s a hardness to much of the prose here, a vigour and a swiftness. At the same time, there’s a mystery to much of the subject matter; this is a book of disappearances, of the unknown. Occasionally, as in Moore’s piece, that touches on the explicitly esoteric. Other times, it has to do with espionage, with the bohemian fringe, or with crime; it is a book of under-worlds and demi-mondes.
I remember reading a piece in a London literary paper not long before the book came out, cooing at Sinclair’s dismissal of Zadie Smith’s “essentially suburban” outlook. Reading Smith, I appreciated what Sinclair meant. Reading this book is a reaffirmation of something greater. A fool sees not the same city that a wise man sees; I’ve been to London, years ago, and it looked nothing like this. I wonder now if I were to return, wiser, what I would see; and whether the metropolis might come to resemble this book.
Does the unity of the book answer the question of whether an individual can create a polyphonous work? If the anthology has a feel so like Sinclair’s own writing, does it suggest that we are each of us in some way anthologists of ourselves? Do truly distinct voices emerge from within ourselves, or in some way speak through us when we write? Certainly some writers have spoken of feeling that to be the case; is that a psychological tic, or a symptom of some other truth?
Conversely, is the editor of the anthologist, in this case, functionally similar to that of the novelist? Is the rejection of the sensibility of Zadie Smith a limitation of polyphony? But then, is even the broadest diversity not in part shaped by what it excludes?
Or does it matter? Perhaps the point I’m coming around to is this: if the anthology is so close to Sinclair’s own work and voice, then does it mean that prose is a medium capable of synthesising voices? If the evidence suggests that multiple voices sound like the voice of one man, then does it follow that one man’s voice may contain within itself multiple voices? Or, at least, that one voice may mimic the sound of multiple voices within the medium of prose in a way that is indistinguishable from the reality of different voices?
I suppose I’d like to think so.