Fiction - Double vision

Dining on Stones (or, the Middle Ground)

Iain Sinclair <em>Hamish Hamilton, 451pp, £16.99</em>

Having walked around the M25 in London Orbital, Iain Sinclair now sends a fictional alter ego, Andrew Norton, walking along the A13 from London to Southend. Norton acquires various companions at different stages: a morose leyline-fancier called Danny, the successful painter Jimmy Seed, two art students, Olivia and Katharine, and a creative-writing teacher, Marina Fountain.

Sometimes Norton's doppelganger turns up. "Another writer with my name, my face, was trailing me; stealing my research and peddling it as documentary truth, a short film here, an essay there." Actually, no, I think that is the doppelganger, "A N Norton", who writes novels, complaining about the "Andrew Norton" who now sticks to non-fiction because, he says, "I can't hack it. No talent for putting myself in other people's shoes, ventriloquising the voices."

For some reason, whenever the two Nortons meet, one of them - I forget which, because they swop places and change into each other now and then, unless I'm just confused - starts to bleed copiously from a recent shaving cut. But both of them are messed-about versions of Iain Sinclair anyway, claiming authorship of his earlier books, such as Downriver and, indeed, London Orbital. Which of them is killed in a car crash on the M25 and which is beheaded by a maniac wielding a samurai sword outside the Thurrock Travelodge hardly matters; besides, they just come back to life in the next passage as if nothing had happened.

Similarly, Olivia is pregnant at one point and then suddenly she was never pregnant in the first place. Sinclair keeps rubbing out the picture, as it were, and drawing it again a bit differently, a technique borrowed from Michael Moorcock, who gets many honourable mentions.

In either form, Andrew or A N Norton endorses Sinclair's predilection for "verbless sentences" in defiance of alleged criticism. "Deserted. A place of heavy drapes, shapes beneath tarpaulin, lit windows of empty rooms. Clubland calligraphy turning puddles of piss into blood." The last bit probably refers to the reflection of a red neon sign. "No leaves on the Eastbury Level, the Hornchurch Marshes, the old firing ranges with their overgrown butts and tattered distance markers: hybrid vegetation, unloved, ungrazed." "The madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses."

Following a clue to the elusive Marina's address, Norton goes to Pevensey Bay - the novel often wanders off the A13, with scenes on the south coast - and cheerfully notes that the house number, 147, is the same as "the catalogue entry for Max Beckmann's Young Woman With Glass". You cannot tell if this is meant to be as bonkers as it sounds. Marina has been sending Norton typescripts of her distinctly long short stories. These are reproduced in full and they read very like Norton's own work, verbless-sentences-a-go-go. There's a good reason: it turns out they are Norton's work, early stuff long abandoned, which Marina has polished up.

Marina is, in fact, Norton's first wife, Ruth. Funny he didn't realise, but that's modern meta-fiction for you. Norton also discovers that he is his own father, hardly surprising, when his friend who gets involved in a bizarre Albanian mafia plot to kidnap Max Bygraves is at the same time the same person as another friend who does no such thing.

The novel's ostensible settings, despite the minute details of architecture, graffiti and litter, are self-dispelling illusions. The true setting is the constantly changing parallel universe of the writer's mind.