By Will Wiles, 4th Estate, 352 pages, £16.99
As Will Wiles demonstrated in his first novel, 2012’s Care of Wooden Floors, a stain is never just a stain. That novel was a Kafkaesque farce, set in an unnamed post-Soviet principality in which an accidental wine-spill provoked a full-blown existential crisis. The narrator of Wiles’s third novel appears no less neurotic and persecuted; though in this case it is a mysterious column of smoke that seems to be following him around.
Jack Bick, a feature writer for an east London-based lifestyle magazine, finds himself staring idly out of the window during an editorial meeting when he notices a mysterious new landmark has appeared: “A column of black smoke arose from the ill-defined, low-rise muddle of the horizon city. Further out than the skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs, it nevertheless bested them in height and weight, appearing as the most solid structure in sight.”
According to news reports, an explosion at a fuel depot in Barking could be the source of the blaze. Yet no one except Jack seems unduly concerned, despite the nasty chemical taint to the atmosphere: “I could taste it, that low-octane, high-carcinogen tang, that bouquet of badly maintained gas appliances, dying cars and overloaded wall sockets.”
Despite an overwhelming compulsion to investigate the source of the fire, Jack is assigned to interview a reclusive cult novelist named Oliver Pierce, whose reputation as an urban realist rests on a slim memoir giving an exceptionally detailed account of his mugging by a gang of youths. After the giddy exposure of an appearance on The One Show sofa (“during which, in a first for that programme, he used the word ‘epiphenomenal’”), Pierce has disappeared from view, diverting his energies into the Casaubon-like pursuit of mapping out “the ultimate psychogeographical index of London”.
As a journalist who has written for design magazines, Wiles has a keen eye for the kind of editorial meeting in which the most sensible suggestions include “trying to sniff out the next big thing in grains — the new quinoa, the spelt-in-waiting”. Even so, some of his satirical targets seem a little soft, such as when Jack, in the interests of research, accompanies his interview subject to find the most probable location in which to get mugged. Instead of the anticipated sink estate they find themselves among a complex of shipping containers in which overpriced lager is pulled from pumps fashioned from Chopper-bike handles.
It’s hard to credit that characters as wedded to their social media accounts as Jack and Pierce would not be aware of this hipster favela already. The incongruity feels all the greater when it emerges that Pierce is in the pay of a software developer whose latest app, Tamesis, is intended to engineer “chance encounters” between people on its network. The suggestion that mobile phones could be used as surveillance devices is hardly new, but Wiles makes a plausible case for the existence of a data-mining company whose motto runs: “We rely on chance — why not make it reliable?”
For those who have followed Wiles’s career to date, the concept of Tamesis — a portal whose bright, user-friendly interface conceals a malign ulterior motive — will seem like the continuation of a familiar theme. His second novel, The Way Inn, posited a Borgesian fantasy in which a particular chain of indistinguishable expense-account hotels appear to be endlessly and inescapably interconnected.
Plume presents a similarly nightmarish closed system, though in this case it is the whole of London, conceived in the mind of developers as “A machine running software. And we can edit that software. We can intervene in the city’s thoughts about itself.” Whether or not you attach credence to the more outre aspects of Wiles’s techno-paranoia, his prose is consistently stylish and funny.
The book also includes a white-knuckle descent into alcoholism, which Wiles freely admits is based on his own experience of drinking earlier and earlier in the day. “Another shameful first,” Jack concedes. “Maybe there wasn’t much material difference between drinking in the shower in the morning and drinking on the Tube on the way into the office.”
More significantly, Wiles is well on the way towards establishing a fictional landscape of his own. Over the course of three novels, his world has emerged as a particular kind of anonymous 21st-century hinterland; whether it be the airport-accessible limbo of The Way Inn, the post-Soviet wasteland of Care of Wooden Floors or the outskirts of London as depicted in the present book: “beyond Barking the city really fell apart … We were in the distribution steppes, the pylon orchards.”
Above all, there’s the ever-present plume, “plump and oily, an umbilicus filling the sky with the poison of the earth”. What’s never clear is whether this blot on the landscape is partly a product of the narrator’s fevered imagination: “This plume had nothing to do with the fire. I feared it had nothing to do with any fire.”
As in his previous novels, Wiles’s blend of satire and surrealism does not always score a direct hit. But like the mysterious column of smoke, it’s getting closer all the time.