General relativity tells us something enticing about time. It doesn’t tell us what many would like it to tell us, that time is simply another dimension which our limited perspective turns into the one-way-street of our experience; it tells us instead that time has a particular relation to entropy, that it is tied to the laws of physics in a different way to the spatial dimensions. However, it offers a picture of causality that can be understood geometrically, that can be modelled by reducing the dimensions of space from three to two and treating time as the third. This model, however many spatial dimensions it postulates, allows us to imagine time as an aspect of space, and admits the possibility of moving through it in the same way. For a race of beings as tragically limited by time as ourselves this is akin to the promise of heaven.
Even if we don’t want to live forever, or to flit about the fourth dimension like Doctor Who or Jerry Cornelius, it is comforting to think of time as a geometry, as a synchronous crystalline structure in which all moments coexist – if the events of the past are simply inaccessible, and still exist in some real sense, then there is perhaps less to mourn. Loss becomes a question of distance rather than of radical absence; death can be re-inscribed as a relation rather than an absolute property. It’s unsurprising then, that a number of writers and thinkers have been drawn to this idea, this scent of an afterlife without God.
Like Michael Moorcock in Mother London, Alan Moore in Jerusalem, or W.G. Sebald in The Emigrants, Iain Sinclair articulates this idea explicitly in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. It emerges in a discussion of Charles Howard Hinton, whose idea of a ‘fourth dimension’ predates the publication of Einstein’s physical theories, although his work was received more in philosophical circles than scientific or mathematical ones. Hinton’s father was the surgeon and advocate of sexual liberty James Hinton, who appears as a character in the book. He in turn was a close associate of the prominent surgeon William Gull, who features in some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories around the Whitechapel murders of the late nineteenth century, theories which are taken up in this book as the basis for one of its intertwined narratives.
This complex network of allusions and associations informs not only this book, but the Moore and Moorcock mentioned above, and many other texts. Sinclair is a figure around whom a whole network of literary exchanges seem to be articulated, pulling in writers with no known interest in him, such as Sebald, or who predate him considerably, such as Jorge Luis Borges, who was very interested in Charles Howard Hinton, and William Blake, whose mystical symbolic language finds many echoes here. This network, also inscribed across his earlier works Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, as though all three were a single text, sidles through the connections and gaps between books in an act of intertextual dérive, finding the paths least trodden and marking a magical geometry across them, like that Sinclair walked between Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches in Lud Heat.
As a novel – and this book is, barely, a novel – White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings is pretty confusing, although far less confusing than the two earlier Sinclair books mentioned above, which he claims in an afterword form a kind of trilogy with it. There are passages of quite comprehensible narrative, some of which are riotously entertaining. Few will fail to be equally disturbed and amused by the detailed accounts of a gang of dysfunctional and unscrupulous antiquarian book-dealers on the trail of a first edition of A Study In Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story. Few will fail to be mystified and terrified by the account of William Gull’s stern family background, and his perpetration of the Jack the Ripper murders as a magical ritual. But fewer still will find anything resembling narrative closure, or finish the book able to sketch a fabula of the events it has represented.
This refusal of narrative convention is, for me, key to the power and beauty of Sinclair’s work. Well-turned stories are the tools we use to produce meaning from experience, be they works of fiction, religious scriptures, or memories we have burnished through repeated recollection, analysis and amendment. But they are also comforting falsifications. No life resembles a novel or a film. Lives are elliptical networks of momentary impressions, afterimages, unattributable symbols, unaccountable feelings, unexpected changes of mood, emergencies, and accidents. The literary world is well-provided with texts that offer us coherent paths through this morass of sensate fragments; Sinclair offers something more courageous, more forbidding, and ultimately more valuable.
The sense he makes, the geometries of symbols and memories he discloses, the psychogeography he inscribes across the terra cognita of place and time, does nothing to reassure us that our lives are meaningful, or that they follow comprehensible trajectories. He does not wish to persuade us that William Gull was Jack the Ripper, or that Nicholas Hawksmoor deliberately drew magical symbols on the map of London, and he certainly doesn’t set out to simply entertain us with these notions as disposable fictional conceits, like a more prolix and erudite Dan Brown. Instead he points out, by doing it, that it is up to us to write our own meanings on the world, and to negotiate our own paths through the territories we inhabit. To do otherwise is to acquiesce in our own coercion, to allow ourselves to be guided on to well-lit, easily surveilled pathways, where we will serve interests other than our own.