Literary forms are tools, and genuinely new ones are few and far between.
I believe that Peter Ackroyd has invented a genuinely new one with London: The Biography , although I would hesitate to give him sole credit for the perfected form. There has been a vast, multi-authored, peculiarly specific "London Project" rather cryptically under way for the past decade or so in London, and Ackroyd of course has been central to that, with works like Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee , and Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem .
But these books arise from a substrate of more singular and less popularly visible literature: from Iain Sinclair's poetry ( Lud Heat , Suicide Bridge ), novels ( Down River , Radon Daughters ) and superbly hallucinatory London-based nonfiction ( Lights Out for the Territory ), and from the obsessively detailed graphic-novel Ripperology of Alan Moore's From Hell . (Somewhere deep at the heart of all of this accumulated new-wave Londonology dwell the tygers and angels of William Blake, himself an artificer of what we would call "graphic novels, " were they to be produced today.)
These are all works which attempt to re-Braille the Borgesian labyrinth that is London and its history, while regarding that re-touching, that induction of the "return of the reforgotten, " as an heroic and somehow utterly crucial project in and of itself.
I have been a keen visitant to this London Project almost from its start, as the enigma of this mysteriously "unknowable" city has been with me since I first went there in my early twenties. The paradox of this vast human settlement, this text laid out in the one human language I have immediate and effortless access to, yet which remains somehow resolutely "closed, " has troubled me quietly and constantly, and I have returned there more repeatedly, and more determinedly, than to any other world city. Looking, always, for some key, some Rosetta Stone.
I began to find that key, it seemed, in the nineties, in Iain Sinclair's work, with its weird cod-occult forays into urban ley-lines and secret centers of ancient and nameless power. Sinclair's almost autistic vision cut down into the very magma of the thing, providing handles for what had previously seemed unimaginable, unmanageable.
But Sinclair's faux-Lovecraftian subtexts, like Moore's blood-drenched conspiracies in From Hell , finally lose traction in the way that all conspiracy theories do: the description of an underlying, literally occulted order is invariably less complex than the surface reality it supposedly informs. Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.
Ackroyd, in London: The Biography , quite resolutely resists that, while continuing to generate a subtle and spooky and to my mind entirely genuine sense of the way that, when we examine London, we draw close to thrones and dominions?and not of the most obvious sort.
Each of the book's seventy-nine chapters functions as a core drill down into an extraordinary wealth of narrative, of voices, each chapter an exploratory essay assembled under a given rubric: women, riots, drunkenness, sacred sites, food, entertainments violent and otherwise, jails, music, plagues, murders, electricity, clocks, magic, lost rivers, the underground, the homeless, trees, the suburbs....
It is this simple structure that I believe constitutes a new form, as I know of no other work of urban history that functions in quite this way, or that delivers what this book delivers. Luc Sante's Low Life comes to mind for New York, and Edward Seidensticker's Low City, High City for Tokyo, with Seidensticker perhaps coming closest to Ackroyd's accomplishment here: the presentation of a city's wholeness and fractal history in the most purely organic terms. To possess this book, or rather to allow oneself to be possessed by it, is the closest literature can bring us to owning London.
And the London Ackroyd gives us partakes entirely of that from which it springs, so that we possess an "echoic" city, in which certain locales are subject to an ongoing re-looping of narrative, as when today's homeless shelter sits beneath the very church eaves that sheltered the homeless of centuries ago. It is a city in which, he suggests, subjective time flows differently, from one area to the next, and may have come to a near complete halt in others. It is a city in which the eternal suffering of the poor may perpetually serve some mysterious and driving purpose in the life of the whole, some hidden dynamo of torture and sacrifice dating back to something stranger and less easily articulated than the hungry ghosts of Hawksmoor.
These are not observations that one could arrive at using any previous literary model of metropolitan history, but the result of a genuinely postmodern agenda, an entirely new and utterly compelling way to write about cities.
If you wish to possess the world's greatest city, read London: The Biography . If you would learn to expose the soul of a place, in the deepest and most thoroughly contemporary way, read it again.