Tuesday 6 September 2011

'boxes and boxes and boxes in boxes'

Dead Water 
by Simon Ings

Simon Ings' previous novel, The Weight Of Numbers, was published by Atlantic Books, and received some notable critical acclaim. An intricately plotted web of narratives that spanned much of the twentieth century, it felt like literary fiction with sci-fi and historical leanings. I hadn't realised that it wasn't actually Ings' debut but his sixth work of fiction, coming after a string of cyber-punk novels. Ings' seventh is being published under Atlantic's new (ish) 'genre' imprint, Corvus, and has similar ambitions to his last: a narrative that covers almost a hundred years up to the present day, spans the globe, and blurs genre boundaries as well as the question of whether he should be considered a genre novelist at all.

This is a tough novel to precis, as I mentioned already it is has many strands over many years and this is also not a linear narrative, but before I even begin to look at the main moments of focus I want you to picture a shipping container. You know the sort, uniform in size if not in colour, the kind of thing you'll have seen whizzing by on a train, truck or even on a great ship (this of course being their revolutionary aspect - a single container that doesn't need to be unpacked as it moves from one form of transport to another). Now go back to the time before that container existed, a time of ship's holds and stevedores, loading and unloading whilst ships stayed at anchor. And then realise the moment these 'boxes and boxes and boxes in boxes' became the future along with one of the novel's protagonists.

The future when it comes will come in boxes. From port to port, big, square-built ships will carry ever bigger quantities of the future about the earth. Great cranes will lift the future from open holds and deposit it on trucks and railway locomotives, and they will bear the future inland, to every town, every settlement.
Shipping, movement, weather, circularity, secrets, codes, revenge and love. These are just some of the themes covered in this novel and what could be said to unite them all is a theory of circulation stemming from the dead water of the title. Concentrate for just a moment and I shall attempt to explain. Here is the science:

When waters of different densities and temperatures pour into each other they do not mix. Instead, they settle into layers. Run a propeller through these layers and you will make no headway, however fiercely you drive the engine. You're just cavitating: chopping up waves into froth.

This is what's called dead water, typically observed where freshwater glacial run-off mixes with the salt water of the ocean, but the theory isn't restricted to the seas. Lift that ship's propeller halfway out of the water and you'll make similarly slow progress, the differing densities of air and water an even clearer example of the theory. And why therefore shouldn't it apply to air too. From this you can begin to formulate theories about weather, where waves of water and air wrapped around the globe 'where every forward impulse is also a return' never cease in their motion. And here's the poetry:

This is why the weather will not die. This is why waters will not stop in their courses. Why the winds will not cease to blow. Why the heart will not cease to desire.

This is also why, in May 1928, an airship falls out of the sky over the Arctic, amongst its survivors a young scientist on the verge of this great discovery. But the story will take us to lots of other places. In a novel about trade and commerce it is fitting that each section even has its own 3D barcode which if you scan with your smartphone gives details of what's contained within. Part One for example:

Major locations: Arctic Ocean / India [Uttar Pradesh] / Norway [Oslo] / Oman [Musandam, Salalah]
Accidents involving vehicles: 4
Episodes involving handguns: 2 [weapons discharged: 1]
Floods: 1
Scenes centered around shipping containers: 2
Appearances of the red notebook: 5
We will meet the man who transforms trade and whose name will adorn thousands of shipping containers, then go missing for nearly 30 years, before a tsunami washes up one of his very own boxes and his mummified remains inside. We will meet Roopa Vish, daughter of a famous Indian detective, whose own investigations into piracy and crime will bring her into mortal peril. Also an ex-spy now industrial fixer, the daughter of a physicist who becomes mountaineer, naturalist and love interest, a counterfeiter; the cast list is large, and circulating and observing all of them are twin brothers who are killed in huge train crash, vaporised by the force of the accident and transformed into djinn, a spirit of Muslim legend that can have supernatural influence over humans.

The boys slither over dry smashed rock, dizzy with adventre. They have no idea where they are, or when, but they are beginning to grasp that geography matters less to them than it matters to the living. They make their own journeys with the stories they tell. They fashion - somehow, they don't yet know how - their own escapes...Stories are their breath. Their food. Their blood. And they're getting stronger.

Keeping up? This is a swirling, whirling novel, as hard to predict as the weather it describes for stories are driven by the same forces, 'Stories weave their way around the earth, knotting themselves around each other as they go.' What does this mean for the reader? Well, it depends what kind of reader you are. There will be some I'm sure who will feel like one character who finds themselves duped by a fiction 'He made everything so - so plausible. So complicated.' The attraction for me was the test for the old grey cells, not just the science but the struggle to keep pace and assemble a pattern out of all the disparate elements. Luckily 'at a certain scale coincidence is a given' and Ings shows himself to be adept once again at connecting his elements. In literary terms there are elements of the supernatural, the thriller, and the historical novel. Ings interest in science means that he can always find a new way of illustrating the central theme and energy of the novel. Take for instance a young woman watching kite surfers.

The kites give a true picture of the wind; the surfers a true picture of the waves. Connecting them are monofilament lines, invisible and strong, like propositions in logic. The argument hums through those lines. The secret vibrates through them. How wind and waves relate. She wants to be out there. She wants to understand. Not surf, not fly, not spin, not trick her way into anything. Just understand.

Neither is he afraid of getting his hands dirty. As the barcode data above hinted this is a novel filled with violence, crookedness and deceit. Ings creates at least two fantastically strong female characters but does make them suffer. Roopa in particular will be abused more than most could bear, reduced to the status of Bhangi or 'untouchable', cleaning the latrines of the castes above her, immersed in 'the schemes, the threats, the feuds. The hot nastiness that prevails over everything and everyone.' The perfect place from which to root around in her pursuit of revenge on those that lowered her to the depths she has reached. Ings is also brilliant at disorientation. His description of the tsunami that hits Bali is shocking and brutal, as is the perspective he writes from when a tramp steamer is raided by pirates off the coast of Sri Lanka. Action is well-handled, the underlying conspiracy believable and the device of the djinn is innovative if nothing else.

I remember really enjoying the dizzying ride that was The Weight Of Numbers but I'd struggle to tell you much of the detail of it now. This might be the risk of writing that is connected so loosely at times it threatens to break apart, and there is definitely a question as to whether both books come together satisfactorily enough. But sometimes the joy of reading can be very much in the present moment and the stimulation that comes from a writer prepared to construct his narrative and then smash it to pieces for you to reassemble is similar to the challenge of one of those giant jigsaws. The uniformity of those shipping containers is only a disguise, they could contain just about anything inside. Exploring the contents is one joy, fitting them all together is the other.


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