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Downriver (2004)

Downriver (2004)

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3.61 of 5 Votes: 3
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0141014857 (ISBN13: 9780141014852)
penguin books ltd

About book Downriver (2004)

Downriver—Or, The Vessels of Wrath sports a smoky frontispiece of a dozen curious black-and-white photographs: one each of the twelve is subsequently attached to the opening page of the twelve narrative tales that subdivide the book. These photos are of various locales in and around the Congo River at the turn of the previous century: native blacks sport Western apparel; West European merchant travelers take turns going native; modernity and tribal primitivism warily circle each other, releasing strange and powerful currents and energies. Behind and below it all the Congo river, a sinuous jungle-black, winding serpent omnipresently looms—along its steaming pathways rationality was introduced into equatorial darkness, but concurrently madness slithered its way through rational defenses and stirred the inky depths of the unknown. Joseph Conrad, an explorer of the margins, haunted by the crepuscular Congo, probed the effects of this intermingling of the new with the ancient and how it unleashed horrors to accompany its wonders.Sinclair follows in the footsteps of his literary forebear some nine decades later, shifting the locale to late-Thatcher England at the dawn of the nineties and focussing upon the Thames river in-and-around London—a stretch which had undergone a whirlwind of change during the market-marvelous eighties, tearing down long-standing structures and neighborhoods to make way for temporary speculative sparkles; dispossessing former residents to create a new indigent class that was shuffled around and away from shiny new (and empty) office towers and cocaine-fueled entertainment districts. Thatcherite England—energy without soul in Sinclair's words—sought to impose a new history overtop of centuries of established tradition and legend. This superficial façade, hastily plastered and smoothed over, stirred up roiling clouds of ash and dust from a history demolished; and the tidal ebb-and-flow of the shimmering Thames, lidless and sleepless, regulated the eternal watch the river kept upon this newest frantic and manic folly perpetrated by that always-innovative and enterprising creature that so brashly dared its liquid demesne.Within a very loosely conjoining metafictional conceit of Sinclair roaming the Thames waterfront to capture narrative ideas for an always-looming BBC documentary, this spectacularly imaginative London-based Welshman has crafted a phantasmagoric, weird, disturbing, cryptic, and wildly, satirically funny masterpiece. Thatcher—labelled The Widow in these Wrathful vessels, a hairless, soulless market chief apparatchik and fluffer who is determined to refashion Britain into a redoubt of glittering, steely speculative frenzy, unrecognizable under its eternal makeover —is the focal point from which flows the occult, nightmarish energies that have broken and rent the London districts surrounding the Thames waterfront. As Sinclair has it, history has soaked into the buildings of the riverine metropolis, into the soil—and nothing bears the ghosts and memories of forward-marching time like the Thames; indeed, its continually churning silt and mud dredges up phantoms and phantasms from the past with alarming regularity, intruding its keepsakes before Sinclair's riverbank ferreting—the author narrator accompanied by a zany crew of artsy misfits and down-on-their-luck rogues. The concrete-and-grime waterfront, with its creepy, ocular deep-water docks and intestinal pipelines is linked via the railway—deregulated and privatized into a multitude of circular and ambulatory lines that crisscross the East London neighborhoods that haunt, and are haunted by, Sinclair and his Unmerry Men; maze-like warrens and open-field transport all sloping downwards towards the bending liquid spine of the transfigured city. The past blends seamlessly with the future into confounding and displacing the present—the occult materializes from the commonplace in nightmarish vignettes, the river coughing up bloated, deformed bodies and spirits that unassumingly take part in driving Sinclair and Company to the very edges of madness—a madness mirrored in the maelstrom of change and destruction enacted by the greedy moguls who hoover up the cash shaken out of broken buildings, relics, livelihoods and dreams. This brilliantine apocalypse exists both in reality and within the paranoid, despairing sanatorium of Sinclair's febrile mind: how much of the tale is the former, and how much the latter, can never quite be determined. Each of the dozen episodes unwinds a new madness, a new sanguinary mystery or mystical disappearance in which the characters come to understand that history, as commonly understood, is as fictional as the wildest novel; that what is held to be the truth depends far more upon one's particular point-of-view, one's agenda, than on what actually occurred; and that time cryptically links individuals separated through decades and centuries, that ripples from the past may have been set in motion to answer an urgent need or desperation from an occluded future. We can become trapped within these bonded and created realities, unaware of how we are imprisoned and both desirous and terrified of the prospect of sudden and irrevocable change, of preconfigured coincidence.I absolutely loved this book—however, I recommend it cautiously, as I can also understand that others would find it maddening and frustrating. By the time I had finished, though still stunned and bedazzled by Sinclair's verbose brilliance, I was also becoming weary of the endless and exhausting authorial shenanigans, and could see how others might have been tempted to abandon ship long before. Sinclair is also a poet, and it shows in the effortlessly beautiful style he wields. He can shift from the comical to the sinister, from grim drudgery to luminous sublimity in a heartbeat and without any disturbance to the narrative flow—in many ways, it reminded me of Gravity's Rainbow filtered through a mind more attuned to symmetry than entropy. The macabre intrusions of the occult, the flowering of dream and nightmare take place within the modern setting in a way that disjoints the reader and confuses what is the result of each character's madness with the mad ends and means of Britain's market enthusiasms. An apocalyptic fever burns throughout the stories—settling to a low hum in some, blazing forth in tempestuous insanity in others—while Sinclair's narrator detective chases down the rendered actuality behind the lives of a sultry and provocative Canadian exotic dancer; a transplanted aboriginal cricketeer; a Rosicrucian-fearing beggar; the ghostly dead from a terrible century old Thames River collision; a Norman knight slain by his murdered steed's vengeance-bearing bones; a pink-capped English aristocrat's shell-shocked destiny with paddle and wicket and window-lowered basket; a Vatican Mafia takeover and transformation of the Isle of Dogs into a guard-towered magnet for penitents and anchorites; a snail-shell-armored Wicker Man conjured forth by mound-light pathways to do battle with the Widow's dead (murdered?) consort's inflated Halicarnassian memorial; and a crippled, destitute Jew whose life-force dispersed into the molecular structure of his rented room above an abandoned synagogue. Characters come and go, appear and re-appear, some returning for a starring role, others fading away into left-behind pages—the connecting link is Sinclair, driven ever nearer the abyssal brink as he uncovers further evidence of the madness and delusion inherent in time's passage and fiction's conception; and, always, the Thames. The wending, arterial river, like its African counterpart, daily buries, afresh and anew, the bodies and creations of humankind, entraps these dampened spirits within the charcoal layers of grimy and grasping muck. A voyage downriver can serve as a journey into the past—but the traveler may not always gain from what he uncovers, let alone comprehend how the river never remains the same after you've breached it the first time.

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