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The Great Fire Of London: Plume By Will Wiles
Nina Allan , May 18th, 2019 11:53

Could Will Wiles' new book Plume stand as one of the great London novels? Nina Allan finds a book which rails against the commodification of the imagination

I had the contents of my pockets, which included my phone, my wallet and my Oyster card. The bedrock of my ability to function. (Will Wiles, Plume)

You hear stories of what London was like in the sixties, how if you didn’t mind a shared bathroom and the odd silverfish, you could survive more or less indefinitely on hack work and takeaways. My dad’s first job was on a market stall in Whitechapel – he was sixteen. After that he went on the buses. My mother trained as a nurse at the Royal London, where I was later born. Their Green Lanes digs were grotty but at least affordable. Work was theirs for the taking.

After eighteen years living and working in the west of England I moved to London in the expectation of landing the same kind of job I’d been doing in Exeter: one that would pay the bills without sapping me of the mental energy I needed to write. It worked – just about. Yet by the time I left the capital six years later, the conditions that had enabled me to move there in the first place no longer existed. On my most recent trip south just after Christmas I came out of the tube at Tottenham Court Road and barely knew where I was. The London that once warmly enveloped me has been replaced by a nervy, glittering-toothed simulacrum. The idea that anyone without means and connections might simply rock up there and make a life for themselves has become the stuff of fiction.

In an interview with Ned Beauman for the Guardian in 2014, the writer William Gibson speaks of the warp-speed changes the city has been undergoing, changes his Londoner friends seem barely to notice:

Some people just don’t seem to see that there’s anything happening to it, even though it seems to me to be such a radical change. It amazes me when people argue: ‘Oh, it’s only happening in that neighbourhood, and if that’s no longer fun we’ll just move.’ I thought that was what the developers wanted you to do so you can gentrify the next bit.

Gibson was promoting his then most recent novel, The Peripheral, which shows London as Gibson imagines it a century from now: emptied out after an unnamed catastrophe, its vast, glass-towered spaces populated by oligarchs and overflown by spy drones. The first time I read that interview, I shrugged off Gibson’s anxiety as the pessimism of the outsider. I felt certain London – my London – could survive anything. I’m not sure if I believe that any more, and the city I loved seems so long in the past I don’t know how to grieve.

*

In Will Wiles’s third novel Plume, we observe London as it might be, say a week from now. Jack Bick (not his real name) is a feature writer for a glossy lifestyle magazine. Both Jack and the magazine are fighting a losing battle for analogue survival in the digital jungle, with Jack’s struggle increasingly complicated by his addiction to alcohol. On the morning the novel begins, Jack is tasked with writing two longform profiles, one of reclusive cult novelist Oliver Pierce, the other of multimillionaire property developer Alex de Chauncey.

While everyone else in the office is distracted by a plume of toxic black smoke to the east, Jack’s main concern is getting back to his flat so he can down a can or three, the absolute minimum necessary for him to function. He knows there’s no way he’ll be able to manage both interviews, not in the same day, especially given that the chance of him writing them up is next to nil anyway. He fears it’s only a matter of hours until he gets fired. Then the writer Oliver Pierce throws Jack a lifeline, a story so big it might just save what is left of his career.

Jack first came to London in the early 2000s, when his mental health was more robust and the opportunities for journalists were thicker on the ground. He is not so much a digital native as a digital immigrant: fluent in social media yet still able to remember a time when he spoke a different language. He is not frightened by new technology so much as burdened with a hyper-awareness of the changes it is impacting, not just on the city as an organism but on its billions of individual cells, including him. Jack has lost the sense of who he is or what his own data signifies: the Need – first the city, then his alcoholism – subsumes all other desires.

The high-octane, high-anxiety atmosphere of a workplace caught in the vice of the digital revolution is not new in literature. Writers from Gibson onwards have striven to capture the implications of such accelerated change: its excitement, its corrosiveness, its insidious perversions. In Jack’s interactions with Francis Quin, a Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur with an uncanny instinct for how ever-greater connectivity might be facilitated, we see the chasm between twentieth-century attitudes – the city as a stable amalgam of buildings, people and institutions – and the ambitions of the next generation of social engineers. In seeking to capture the way we work now, Wiles’s novel is among the best I have read. Yet Plume reaches further than the digitisation of journalism. Its true subjects are more elusive and harder-hitting.

*

Examples of ‘the London novel’ are many and varied. The beginning of the present century saw a flurry of novels charting the social conflicts and allegiances within diverse London communities, notably Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and then NW (2012), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and more recently Guy Gunaratne’s Jhalak-prizewinning In Our Mad and Furious City (2018). Novels that pit the old London against the new are not in short supply either. Blake Morrison, John Lanchester and William Boyd, not to mention Ian McEwan and Martin Amis have all had a go, the results ranging from partial and patchy to bland and embarrassing. Plume belongs to a different tradition, a strand of London narrative that is older, deeper and stranger, from writers who have not sought to explain London but to rummage around in its underbelly. Plume’s most obvious literary antecedents are novels such as Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (1985), Michael Moorcock’s Mother London (1988), Iain Sinclair’s Downriver (1991) and Chris Petit’s Robinson (1993). Most resonantly of all, Plume recalls Tobias Hill’s lesser-known but queasily powerful 2003 work The Cryptographer, which posits a ‘soft apocalypse’ similar to the kind seen in Plume, all while social media was still in its infancy.

Ironically, the reclusive writer in Plume, Oliver Pierce, positions his own work as being directly in opposition to these kinds of novels, and he does not shy away from laying bare his antagonism:

“All the fucking lost rivers, ghost tube stations, all that shit – I’m just so fucking sick of that, it makes me want to puke. It was getting boring ten years ago, it’s just intolerable now. And the whole ideological project that goes along with it, all about tracing out the London of the Kray twins and the industrial past as a revolt against the corporate takeover of... I mean, I fucking hate what London is becoming, what it has become. Fucking hate it... But one of the reasons they come here is because of the trendiness, the grit, all that fucking mystique-sludge that’s getting dredged up from the Thames 24/7... Trying to get the city back by writing about all that stuff, that was doomed. It’s just advertising, it just sucks in more cash.”

Fearing a James-Frey-style public unmasking of his mugging memoir Night Traffic, Pierce co-opts Jack as his literal partner-in-crime in an attempt to head off the ruination of his literary career. Pierce has set out to discover just how much fictionalising life-writing can tolerate before it becomes something else entirely – a lie – and whether this matters. Such questions do not have a single answer, let alone a simple one. We would not demand the same veracity from a lost weekend narrative as from a supposedly first-hand experience of the Nazi Holocaust, yet as Pierce’s contract for Night Traffic is for a work of non-fiction, in the world of Plume at least he can still be sued.

Plume rails hard against the commodification of experience and imagination as ingestible product. There is also the question of timing. Plume is a novel caught in the gut-punch of Brexit. Our communities and workplaces violated by populist extremists, we huddle, grey and exhausted, in the never-after. In Pierce’s rant against psychogeography, Wiles seems to be asking if it is still possible to swoon over keepsakes in the attic when a gang of violent thugs is trashing our means of survival in the rooms below.

*

In Wiles’s 2012 debut, Care of Wooden Floors, his feckless slacker protagonist takes a sabbatical in the apartment of an old university friend, situated in one of the new EU capitals of Eastern Europe. The action unfurls in slow motion, a slew of blackly comic minor disasters in a post-bleak, post-Soviet environment in the throes of post-millennial upthrust. The book is quirky, knowing, funny – all the epithets commonly attached to debuts but in this case true.

In spite of everything that goes wrong for its protagonist, the overriding ethos of Wiles’s debut is one of bumbling optimism, or at least doom postponed. Eight years later and we are entering different territory. The very things that drew Jack Bick to the metropolis are being destroyed, the ancient map of the city reduced to the kind of corporate null-space explored with Ballardian perspicacity in Wiles’s second novel, The Way Inn.

If Plume has a flaw at all it is that it is almost too flippant, too British, too soaked in irony. Too cool for school – as if it wasn’t cool that got us here in the first place. Lurching in a drunken weave towards the scaffold, we would do well to remember that the purpose of gallows humour is to divert attention from the noose about our neck. Care of Wooden Floors saw the Buster Keaton-esque destruction of a single apartment. In Plume it is an entire house that falls into the void, and it can only be a matter of time before the city follows. As the titular plume expands to choke the whole of London, the novel’s antic energy is sucked away into the vortex of hipster hell. Plume is mired in finality, the London novel – perhaps – to end them all.

Plume by Will Wiles is published by HarperCollins

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