The Big Smoke

David Hebblethwaite reviews Will Wiles’ Plume

Will Wiles, Plume.
4th Estate, £16.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

As well as being a novelist, Will Wiles is a design journalist with an interest in modern urban spaces that runs through his work. His début, Care of Wooden Floors (2012), dealt with the absurdity of maintaining domestic living spaces, while his second novel, The Way Inn (2014), brought a touch of Gothic horror to anonymous chain hotels. In light of Wiles’ interests, then, the architect Sam Jacob has observed that Wiles’ talent lies in peering “behind the sheen of practical and logical reality” to explore “invisible systems of infinite complexity. The chain hotel is, in other words, the tactile tip of a giant abstract framework whose own logic is invisibly remaking the world in its image.”

Plume, Wiles’ third novel, continues exploring the theme of hidden systems affecting human life, but it unfolds on a broader canvas. Our narrator is Jack Bick, a feature writer for a glossy lifestyle magazine. His life is blighted by alcoholism, which makes him prone to memory lapses and hallucinations, such as this harrowing instance where he travels on the London Underground and imagines an outbreak of fire:

The breeze from the tunnel grew stronger, and I could see it now, see the smoke, a steadily thickening haze carried on the back of the column of air pushed out by the approaching train. And I could feel it on my skin, in my eyes, hot and stinging. I raised my hand to my face and did not lower it. I was hot to the touch. I coughed, and fell into a fit of coughing, unable to stop. Hair and skin, on fire in the darkness, one of those coal seam fires that burn for decades, inextinguishable, slow death to the communities above. I felt ready to vomit.

Although this hallucination establishes Bick’s potential as an unreliable narrator (unreliable even to himself), his alcoholism is not a mere plot device. It is given genuine weight and seriousness, pervading the text as it does the protagonist’s life. Bick refers to the gnawing feeling of his addiction as “the Need”, noting how it shuts off his ability to think of anything else: “All it left clear was the path from the bed to the fridge. The Need filled every other corner, it was in me and choking me, like smoke”.

Smoke is a recurring image throughout Plume, especially the ever-present column of black smoke that gives the novel its title. The plume is caused by an explosion at a fuel depot in Barking, East London, but Bick continues to see it long after it should have petered out – a symptom and symbol of his unease. There are also repeated examples of abstract concepts dispersing through the medium of life, from Bick’s addiction taking over his thoughts to the ripples and echoes of a news story breaking online, or the mysterious new London-based social network Tamesis:

It had started as a way of finding bars and restaurants, and prospered on the eerie strength of its recommendations. But it was evolving into much more than that, rolling out new functions and abilities, constantly sucking in data from other networks, informing itself about the city and its users. If there had been a bomb, or a gas explosion, or even a significant car accident, Tamesis would know about it before most people, pulling in keywords and speculation from Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere, cross-checking and corroborating, and making informed guesses — preternaturally informed.

Here is another of those systems at work behind observable reality, which promises to offer deeper information to those with sufficient insight (or technology). Bick is drawn to one person who might have such insight: Oliver Pierce, a reclusive writer whom he is about to interview. Pierce became a cult concern with his first two novels but achieved his greatest success with Night Traffic, a non-fiction account of his own mugging. Bick himself has been mugged in the past, and finds that Pierce’s description rings all too true. When Bick narrates his experience of being mugged, it is presented explicitly as an event he has not been able to comprehend:

It was confusing. There was no clarity in the situation. It didn’t look promising, but it wasn’t a man with a knife saying, “Give me all your money.” There was no obvious, sensible path to either escape or self-preservation. That was the most frightening part.

If Pierce had such understanding of something beyond Bick’s ken, what might the writer have to say now? At first, given the heavily annotated map of London on Pierce’s wall and the revelation that he has been working with Tamesis, it seems likely that Bick is about to get a juicy story. And he does, but not of the kind he is expecting: Pierce confesses that the mugging in Night Traffic never happened — he made the whole thing up. This news rocks Bick to the core, and he starts to realise how much his work depends on Pierce acting in the expected way:

If it involved drinking or drug use, criminal or semi-criminal activity of some kind, and perhaps a lucky escape from arrest or a beating, I could justifiably call it a gonzo escapade. This was a wish fulfilled, but only if Pierce was Pierce. He had to play along, to conform to the personality that appeared on the pages of his essays. He had to be unpredictable and dangerous and full of bad ideas. I was just along for the ride.

Here, Bick has suggested that he and Pierce head out to find an “authentic” urban experience. This search for authenticity recalls Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), whose injured narrator invests his money in staging elaborate re-creations of situations from his earlier life, desperately hoping that he might once again experience reality as he did before the accident that has robbed him of most of his memories. As a novel, Remainder floats above the events it depicts, as though to emphasise the absurdity of its protagonist’s attempts to capture authentic experience, and for a time Plume seems as if it might go the same way. Bick’s idea is to visit the site of the fuel depot explosion: this will constitute a “primal urban event”, Bick says. What he and Pierce find, however, is a scene being carefully stage-managed by public relations people. As one of the PRs explains:

This is precisely what I meant by our role in managing perceptions of the event: we are not concerned with the cloud of smoke as much as we are with the cloud of psychological consequences the event has created. The emergency services can deal with the combustion incident, while a public relations department can address the action of the event on the minds of the public. We can change the nature of the event for the better. We can do good that way. Our intervention here is essentially therapeutic.

The dialogue in this scene feels more heightened than everything that has come before, as if to point up the dissonance of such a dramatic event being wrapped so efficiently in a layer of calm, bureaucratic re-interpretation. When Pierce decides that the way to put right his fraud is to make the Night Traffic mugging happen for real, the stage seems set for a Remainder-esque tall tale. Ultimately, though, Wiles takes his novel down a different path, in two key ways.

The first departure he makes is to expand and strengthen Bick’s paranoia. There has always been a certain fuzziness to Bick’s memory. As a child, he pretended to have a pet cockatoo in order to make himself seem more interesting — but, over time, the story became so elaborate that he started to remember it as a real event. Now, as an adult, his alcoholism has made this fuzziness worse: he has even started to hallucinate cockatoos. His memory lapses also have serious consequences, for himself and others — for example, he loses his recording of Pierce’s confession and then can’t remember how — and, most disorienting of all, the founder of Tamesis, whom Bick has previously interviewed, seems able to keep tabs on him wherever he goes. So the suspicion grows that something is tampering with Bick’s life, be it outside forces or his own alcohol-fuelled subconscious. Unlike Remainder‘s protagonist, Bick is not in control of his story.

Wiles’ interests as an architecture journalist come to the fore in his second key departure from Remainder, which is to ground the tale of Bick’s personal nightmare in a framework that allows the author to explore concerns about how we inhabit contemporary urban spaces. This begins with linking Bick’s paranoia to the character’s housing situation. Bick observes that the lifestyles of journalists such as himself may be a far cry from the luxurious lives they write about (he describes the job as “aspirational role-play”), and so it proves for him. This is underscored in a scene where he heads out to the garden for the first time in months to unhook a plastic bag from a tree. It’s not until he has climbed onto the garden wall that he sees the rest of the building has been knocked down for construction work. Only the façade is left standing, as tenuous as a movie set:

My extortionate little cellar had sometimes felt like a dungeon or a mineshaft, a hole in the cold, pressing earth. Now I could see it was a tissue box, exposed on both sides and fragile. Home.

This scene is absurd in its imagery (rather like Bick’s earlier conversation with the PR people) but serious in its tone. A few revelations later, and we come to a scene in which people claiming to be firefighters are knocking on Bick’s door, telling him that the building is ablaze. The tension ratchets up, along with the suspicion that these people may be impostors, their purposes unknown but no doubt nefarious. The sense that Bick’s life is being undermined has become so complete that the reader’s imagination needs little prompting to fill the gaps with outlandish conjectures. So here’s the touch of horror, the classic sense of uncertainty that comes from a protagonist who appears to be losing their grip on reality — or having it taken away from them.

But Wiles’ interest in the realities of urban living do not stop with Bick as an individual — he is concerned with people as a group. When Bick looks at the area surrounding the fuel depot, his initial reaction is fairly rote:

The stairs down from the bridge were clogged with litter and weeds that had graduated into shrubbery, making me wonder if people ever came here, and who might be responsible for maintaining this miserable outpost. As soon as this thought formed, I had to revise it. Of course people came here, people worked here, did they not? Many people. All around were places of work: logistics centres and cement plants and, ahead, Barking power station. Even legit, old-school factories.

With that shift in perception, this landscape evolves from a generic playground for idle thoughts to a real place where real lives are lived out, even if Bick can only begin to imagine them. He says: “So many of my fellow Londoners were, I realised, a mystery to me. Where did they live? The question: how did they make it work?” Of all the intangible processes underway in Plume, perhaps this is the most significant: the simple yet profound matter of how to get by.

Ultimately, Wiles’ novel returns Bick — and us — to the question of authenticity. Bick and Pierce argue over a housing estate which is being demolished and scheduled for rebuilding. Pierce is adamant that the place should have been left alone, that this was part of the real, elemental city, not like the shiny new development. Bick would have once agreed with Pierce’s view, but is no longer so sure:

I had been sympathetic, before I knew the truth about Night Traffic. But that city had been before my time. I had been a child, growing up two hours away (by the fastest train), where the whole of London was an exquisite, hazardous mystery. I was fascinated by a prior London I had never seen myself. I thought I was angry about that London disappearing — as angry as Pierce. But what if I was not? What if I was angry, and sad, about something else, and London was no more than a setting?

This is the main difference between the two characters: whereas Pierce is fixated on his idea of authenticity, whatever it takes to attain, Bick is more pragmatic in the face of what he discovers.

As with his previous work, Wiles considers the possibility of “invisible systems” (such as social media data) beneath surface reality, but in Plume he is more concerned with day-to-day urban life, and who might stand to gain or lose from the gaming of the systems. He uses the personal predicament of Jack Bick to ask where we draw the line of what it takes to get by, and applies his talents to a broader, more urbanised canvas, to reflect on the consequences of one person’s actions on those who live alongside them.