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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Landor's Tower

Iain Sinclair

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To purchase Landor's Tower

Title: Landor's Tower
Author: Iain Sinclair
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 364 pages
Availability: Landor's Tower - US
. Landor's Tower - UK
. Landor's Tower - Canada
  • or The Imaginary Conversations
  • With illustrations by Dave McKean

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Our Assessment:

A- : winning if often confounding ragtag novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 23/9/2001 James Ley
Daily Telegraph C 23/4/2001 Thomas Wright
Evening Standard C 30/4/2001 Melanie McGrath
The Guardian C- 5/5/2001 Ian Penman
New Statesman A- 23/4/2001 Henry Hitchings
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 11/11/2001 Stephen Amidon
The Observer A- 8/4/2001 Tim Adams
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2002 James Sallis
San Francisco Chronicle A 30/9/2001 Kenneth Baker
The Spectator A 7/4/2001 Michael Moorcock
Sunday Times A 22/4/2001 Phil Baker
The Times A 18/4/2001 Russell Celyn Jones
TLS . 20/4/2001 Clare Morgan
The Washington Post A 16/9/2001 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Divergent opinions -- many enjoyed it, particularly the writing, and find it filled with humour -- but all find much remains obscure.

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are two factors that prevent Landor's Tower from imploding under the weight of its own improbability. The first is Sinclair's sense of humor. (...) The second factor is Sinclair's prose. He has a distinct style: a combination of a high literary technique, richly textured, lush with allusions and metaphor; but delivered in hardboiled, rapid-fire sentences. Slangy and verbless." - James Ley, The Age

  • "There is no discernible plot or structure (for a man obsessed with occult symmetries, Sinclair writes surprisingly shapeless books). As usual, his prose poems and his self-referential digressions are at first intoxicating, but after a while they succeed only in making you feel hungover. (...) Sinclair has a rather limited range as a stylist." - Thomas Wright, Daily Telegraph

  • "(T)here is something sour and evasive about Landor's Tower. I was offended by its stubborn unwillingness to engage the reader, by the covert nature of its homoeroticism and by its latent misogyny. I found it indulgent and, in a paradoxical way, (because it is an awfully complicated book), rather superficial." - Melanie McGrath, Evening Standard

  • "Landor's Tower is all paranoid asides and sighing disclaimers which, taken together, spell out a weary "wish I wasn't here". (...) Landor's Tower is less a novel than a series of manic-depressive Post-It notes from the author to himself, reminders never to do this again. (...) This is a work of palpable disenchantment; magical realism, only without the magic." - Ian Penman, The Guardian

  • "The plot, such as it is, serves only as a scaffold from which to hang a variety of musings and conceits. (...) These reflections are seldom less than interesting; however, as they ramify repeatedly, their effect becomes wearing. Even when this is so, the writing is often startling. In Sinclair's prose, the proportion of solids to liquids is unusually high. His metaphors bristle with malicious intent." - Henry Hitchings, New Statesman

  • "History has always been a living presence in Sinclair's writings; here it is the stuff of facts and textbooks. (...) Where the narrative fails, however, Sinclair's dazzling style and mordant humor come shining through." - Stephen Amidon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Reading one particularly incendiary section of this book I was reminded of watching a tooled-up video-game hero: Sinclair's prose cartwheeling and somersaulting and jujitsuing through anything the world could throw at it: lobbing smart bombs at soft targets; reducing vain conceits to matchwood, continually taking itself up another level. The effort of staying with this singular writer in this mood can be exhilarating, even if, at times, you feel as if you are not so much reading this novel, as being beaten up by it." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "The best way to envision a Sinclair novel may be as a three-dimensional chess set, with Sinclair shuttling vertically, horizontally and obliquely from level to level: historical, socio-literary, personal, political, obsessive. The house game is always fixed. Replacing standard narrative strategies with a series of loose foci, Sinclair allows these to breed among themselves a host of correspondences, contradictions, collisions, corrections." - James Sallis, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Sinclair, a prose stylist almost without peer, treats the sentence -- not plot, narrative or character -- as the fundamental engine of the novel. His diction drives Landor's Tower to pitches of ambiguity, comedy and intensity that will thrill patient, attuned readers and probably repel others." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Drawing stimulus as much from popular culture as obscure literary histories, Sinclair presents a richly unsettling mix of familiar and unfamiliar. (...) Ultimately, Sinclair’s purposeful drifters rise to the philosophical moment like Keystone cops and deliver not just a satisfactory resolution but a fairly cheerful one." - Michael Moorcock, The Spectator

  • "Sinclair seems apologetically conscious that the book itself might not add up, and in some respects it doesn't. It is more about process than product (.....) This is one of Sinclair's richest books to date, in a body of work that contains some of the most fascinating writing currently being produced; if it fails as a novel, it makes novelistic success seem irrelevant." - Phil Baker, Sunday Times

  • "Wales has been begging to be invented for some time by a writer of his calibre and Sinclair pulls out all the apocalyptic imagery at his disposal to do just that. This is Wales seen from a car driven by Hunter S. Thompson with Joseph Conrad and Alan Ginsberg as passengers." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "(O)verweighted with ideas, but gloriously so, it compels attention. (…) Like David Jones before him, Iain Sinclair is telling us that the path to truth lies through labyrinthine detour. His message, perhaps, is to do with the necessity of a guide." - Clare Morgan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In brief, Landor's Tower is a highly showoffy tour de force, what the narrator calls a downloading of the trivia he carries in his head. Wonderful trivia, I might add. Not that everyone likes this sort of thing. (...) But reading Iain Sinclair's sentences more than compensates for any narrative slackness." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Iain Sinclair's preoccupation with London -- "my perverse and obsessive passion", he calls it here -- is well-documented. London is the focus -- and the heart and the soul -- of many of his works, its darkest recesses explored and revelled in, its obscure characters shoved briefly on center-stage. But, in fact, Sinclair was born a Welshman, and in Landor's Tower he takes his show on the road, returning to "the territory I had lived in for twenty years, the memory pit."
       Set in some of his ways, transplanted Sinclair -- or at least his first-person narrator (occasionally manifesting himself as the ultimately "unresolved avatar" Norton -- familiar, as are many of the characters, from previous Sinclair works) -- is ill at ease in the Welsh countryside. But the setting works to Sinclair's strengths, as he picks it apart and zeroes in on sites, histories, and figures (familiar, historical, fictional and obscure) much as he would in London.
       There are plot lines galore: murder, suicides, mental asylums, a good deal of bookselling and buying (Sinclair's old trade), readings, writings. There are cameos from the past: David Jones, Father Ignatius, Henry and Thomas Vaughan, and Francis Kilvert are presences through much of the book, and Allen Ginsberg and Bruce Chatwin also pop up. A number of Sinclair's friends and acquaintances also have roles, from Michael Moorcock to the usual cast of odd characters that follow him from book to book, who live, like him, "on the ledge of the peripheral". The Jeremy Thorpe affair plays a role. And, of course, there's Walter Savage Landor, towering (vaguely) behind it all.
       The book is meant to be about Landor. That is what the commission was. That was the narrator's intent. He begins already near the end -- and still nowhere:

My publisher's advance was disappearing fast; if the West Country project remained uncompleted, somebody in New York was going to close the book. My credit had long since run out. I bored critics who once patronised me as a rough-trade novelty act, a dirty walker. I had the potential, so they said, to become a W.H. Davies supertramp with a diploma in psychogeography; now I was damned for sticking too long to the same midden, riverine London. The next stage, I knew all too well, was oblivion.
       But, of course, there is never any hope at the beginning of a Sinclair novel. All the characters seem to have ground themselves to a halt -- only to find that they can't stop. Nothing ever stays in place in a work by Sinclair. The opening -- an almost forlorn narrator, off his game, ill at ease, out of his element -- is as promising as any Sinclair might offer. And, not surprisingly, he (and the reader) are in for much more than he could have ever anticipated.
       Early on the narrator is "struggling with a Ruth Rendell novel that wasn't a Ruth Rendell, a Barbara Vine" -- appealing to Sinclair surely because he also likes to pretend-hide behind a nameless narrator or another identity, without ever really denying his true identity. The narrator explains his difficulties with the Vine novel: he loves the beginning, but "as the mystery unravelled, as all the pieces fitted together, and the engine clicked, cog by cog, towards revelation, I lost interest." Sinclair allows pieces to fit together too, and cogs to turn -- but there is no easy resolution, and for every strand unravelled another becomes entangled.
       Sinclair is not beyond critiquing (or at least satirizing) his own approach, as he allows himself (as Norton) to be berated:
     'Don't you have any imagination ?' the Brummie droned, tempting me to imagine him face down in wet concrete with a heavy roller smoothing out his creases. 'Every novel starts with a stalled car, a squabble of bookdealers. What are you, a fucking Catholic ? What's with this three-part structure ? One: lowlifes running around, getting nowhere. Two: a baggy central section investigating 'place', faking at poetry, genre tricks, and a spurious narrative which proves incapable of resolution. Three: quelle surprise. A walk in the wilderness. What a cop-out, man !'
       Needless to say, Landor's Tower is just such a tripartite exercise.
       Walter Savage Landor is one loose, focal point for the novel. "He was rusticated, banished", it is explained -- and: "Rustication was the metaphor his life required: to be made over as a countryman, a man willing to be always in the wrong place." Sinclair's narrator (who often enough seems to feel rusticated) can never get a firm hold on Landor. His project fizzles before it can assume much of any form.
       Landor was also a poet, but is perhaps best remembered for his Imaginary Conversations -- a voluminous collection described here as "a great idea, but unreadable". But there is much to tempt an author there: "Landor's book was proto-sf; voices travelling across time, chat lines open between the living and the dead." Sinclair's sometime author Norton imagines one brief imaginary conversation with Landor himself, suggesting that the man would have confessed "a weakness for The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and hoped for Robert Mitchum (dead or not) to star "when Miramax get around to a Landor bio-pic".
       The efforts to make something of the project lead the narrator to Hay-on-Wye ("aversion therapy for bibliophiles"), and into the hands and arms of a variety of characters, notably the David Jones-obsessed Prudence. A number of deaths (of generally mysterious sort) hang in the air and neighborhood, and narrator-Norton gets himself fingered for at least one of them. An asylum offers a sort of escape, but Norton chooses escape from there as well -- and Sinclair then finishes him off in quite dramatic fashion at the end of the second part of the novel, to leave his narrator then wondering what he has done in the third.
       There's clever stuff all over here, along with the obscure and plain mystifying. Sinclair's narrator frequently seems similarly confused -- or at least dazed by events. But Sinclair's presentation is winning, bounding along with just the right touch of humour.
       Sinclair writes well. Place is his strength (in Wales as much as in London), and it is neat to see him tackle such a different territory -- though he is perhaps not as forgiving here:
Wales is the perfect locale. An hour's tramp would lead the most vacant optimist to thoughts of suicide. Exile Lord Archer to Builth Wells or Aberystwyth for six months and you'll have a second Wittgenstein on your hands.
       He finds his fantasies "polluting the landscape", thinking even "in Martini images", but overall his hold is solid.
       Characters -- the wild and weird bunch familiar from his other works, as well as the historical figures with roles to play -- are another strength. The details -- the small movements, the idiosyncrasies -- are well-put, making for full pictures of these odd men (there are only a few women here). Larger than life, the characters (even the real ones) may seem almost too odd, but Sinclair works well with the peculiar characters -- perhaps never quite sure whether he isn't really one of them too.

       It's an odd book, but Sinclair is in fine form here, doing what he does best as well as he has in any of his previous fiction. It is a good introduction to his work (except that some familiarity with some of his characters and themes can be helpful). It won't be to everyone's taste, which is a shame. Certainly worthwhile.

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Landor's Tower: Reviews: Walter Savage Landor: Iain Sinclair: Dave McKean: Other books by Iain Sinclair under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       London author Iain Sinclair has written several collections of poetry, as well as a number of novels and documentary works.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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