Wolves (2014) by Simon Ings – Both Right and Necessary
Somewhere along the line we appear to have become convinced that style is something quite distinct from content. We look at heavily stylised works and either lionise them for the way in which style and content complement each other or we chastise them for indulging in stylistic experimentation without ever bothering to ground the experiments in content or message. We believe that content without style is direct. We believe that style without content is decadent and frivolous. We have fallen into the habit of treating style as a luxury or an indulgence when in truth it is anything but.
The French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once observed that style is just a simple way of saying complicated things and while it’s possible to unpack this statement in a number of different ways, what I choose to take from it is that the style that a work adopts is as much a part of that work’s content as anything else. The rejection of the style/content dichotomy is what lies at the heart of Samuel R. Delany’s oft celebrated and immediately forgotten essay “About 5,750 Words”:
Put in opposition to “style,” there is no such thing as “content”.
Simon Ings’ novel Wolves is proof of the fundamental correctness of Delany and Cocteau’s position; it is a novel whose content is entirely exhausted by its confused, disorienting and thoroughly engrossing narrative style.
The novel deals in the lifestuff of a man named Conrad who, when we first encounter him, is desperately fishing for excuses that will allow him to dump his recently maimed girlfriend without tarnishing his self-image as a sensitive man who claims to have fallen in love with his girlfriend’s world. Conrad later shares this rationale with a woman he is trying to seduce as he thinks that falling in love with someone over their tooth-brushing habits and choice of restaurants makes him appear sensitive but in truth it is a narcissism that cuts to the heart of the novel’s plot as well as the stylised manner in which said plot is presented.
One of the reasons why people tend to distinguish between style and content is an erroneous belief that a work’s ‘style’ resides only in its smallest components such as the cinematic shot or the literary sentence. Ing’s Wolves is undoubtedly stylised in so far as it contains a high proportion of sentences that are either poetic affectations:
Whenever I had to walk through the estate, I could feel my childhood recollections falling away from me, the way dreams fall away on waking.
Or acts of deliberately science-fictional cognitive estrangement:
The last time we tried to have sex, Mandy wore her hands.
Many of these sentences are beautiful and attention grabbing but the really interesting stuff doesn’t reside in sentences so much as in narrative beats and how the book controls the flow of information as we slip between its different timeframes.
The book is built around two periods in Conrad’s life: In the first, he is an adult who lives and works in London, in the second he is a teenaged boy living in the country with his parents. The positioning of these two different timeframes is quite significant as while London is presented as a high-tech world where history and truth are disappearing beneath a tide of AR, the British countryside is presented as a historical curiosity disappearing beneath rising sea levels. The disconnect between these two places is as absolute as the disconnect between the two timeframes as the book reflects the fact that London is now so culturally and economically remote from the rest of Britain that last winter’s rural flooding might as well have been taking place on another continent or in another time.
As a child, Conrad is an awkward and anxious creature who feels completely detached from the world of his parents where father helps to rehabilitate blinded servicemen by getting them used to cybernetic vision while mother is buffeted by the winds of mental illness from one faddy project to another before eventually settling into a downward spiral that begins in a nightmarish protest camp that might as well have picked up all the threads attached to Conrad’s name and called itself the Heart of Darkness:
There were women all around me, hidden, hissing at me. They were squatting in benders made from old tent canvas. They were crouching in teepees and yurts and behind screens of dead branches. They were hiding in nettle patches, hunkered down there like animals
Despite being written in the third-person, the novel is unabashedly subjective in its depiction of Conrad’s world. In fact, this subjectivity frequently blossoms into solipsism as Conrad’s parents and friends only exist in so far as they contribute to the person that Conrad will become. Hence, the father’s cybernetic dalliances are the seeds that will grow into Conrad the AR pioneer while the mother’s manic episodes and demented sub-cultures form a trickle of misogyny that soon disappears into the vast and confusing delta of Conrad’s sexuality.
As an adult, Conrad is an awkward creature whose anxieties lie buried beneath a layer of 21st Century contempt: As boyfriend to a maimed woman, his eyes are filled with disgust and frustration by the emotional raggedness of a woman struggling to put her life back together after a hideous and life-changing accident. As partner in an Augmented Reality company, his eyes are filled with derision for people who work incredibly hard and get nowhere while people who work incredibly hard and get somewhere are presented as imbecilic chancers who stumble into wealth, respect and success while he sits around calmly cataloguing their faults. Conrad’s lack of sympathy for the people around him is particularly manifest when he travels to the countryside in order to spend some time with a childhood friend who has devoted his life to preparing for the apocalypse. The aesthetics of their chosen lifestyle is so alien to Conrad that words such as “damp”, “gloom”, “cold” and “brittle” seem to gang up on him and provoke a physiological response:
I should not have come. I seem to be gathering all the living room’s dampness into myself, pooling it behind my breast-bone – a big wet bag of phlegm I cannot even bring up.
The childhood friend in question is Michel, an oddly ethereal creature who is bound to Conrad by a combination of rivalry and uncomprehending lust. When we first meet Michel, he is ever-so-slightly cooler than Conrad but this status anxiety predictably gives way to contempt when Michel throws himself into the life of first a survivalist and then a successful author while Conrad lumbers from job to job and relationship to relationship with little sense of direction or narrative. Indeed, when Conrad seduces, fucks and impregnates Michel’s partner Hanna there is more than a touch of vindictiveness in the way he refuses to confess even once the betrayal is made public. Conrad’s desire to fuck with the narrative that Michel has chosen for his own life recalls both the structure of the novel and the envious inadequacy contained in Conrad’s admission that:
Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy. Confusing the two loves is easier still.
Wolves appears to employ a traditional narrative structure of two independent plotlines that merge at the climax of the novel. Equally traditional is the way that alternating chapters move us back and forth between the different timeframes, presenting us with packets of information that will help us to understand the psychological context (old) in which certain events (new) take place. However, though Ings initially plays ball with traditional narrative conventions, the rules begin to slip almost as soon as they are introduced. The first point of departure is when fragments of one timeline begin to pop up in chapters devoted to another like memories summoned by the eating of a madeleine. At first, these injections seem relevant to whatever is happening in the dominant timeframe but, as the novel progresses, the relevance of the surfacing memories as well as the distinction between recalled memory and narrated present become increasingly difficult to track. By the end of the book, Ings is hurling us from one point in Conrad’s life to another whilst undermining our attempts to make sense of what is going on with a continuous stream of references to people, places and events that we have yet to encounter. The resulting effect is intensely and (I would argue) intentionally destabilising, it reduces Conrad’s life to an eternal and meaningless now, a collection of moments so disordered that they might as well be taking place at the same time. It is in this erasure of the differences between past, present, memory and experience that the distinction between style and content reveals itself as meaningless.
The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff wrote a book in which he argues that the West is undergoing a fundamental change in how it relates to time. The book Present Shock explores a number of symptoms but the one most relevant to Wolves is the phenomenon of narrative collapse. Rushkoff begins by explaining the importance of traditional narratives in how people structure their lives and create their sense of self. From religion to politics by way of bedtime stories, humans acquire their values as well as their sense of what is individually and collectively possible from the stories they consume as part of their day-to-day engagement with the culture that surrounds them. Rushkoff even quotes the science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin who observes:
The story – from Rapunzel to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
Drawing on our culture’s narrative reserves helps to create a sense of context that allows us to orient ourselves in life and lend our actions the subjective patina of meaning. As Existentialism suggests, to be cut adrift from one’s cultural narratives is to be set free but it is a freedom tinged with isolation and terror as every option becomes available just as we lose the values and histories that might allow us to make meaningful decisions. Narrative is so central to the human condition that history is littered with attempts to bend those narratives to the defence of a particular person or institution. Though central to religious history, this process became particularly evident in the 20th Century when governments and corporations began to use our addiction to narrative as a means of either winning our affections or urging us towards a particular course of action. In the wake of World War II, people became increasingly cynical about attempts to use narrative to bend the public will to a particular end and this cynicism has since spread to the commercial realm where advertisers and PR executives are stuck in a perpetual arms race with a society always half-heartedly learning to protect itself from the hard sell.
For a long time, our most noted defence mechanism was that of postmodern detachment, a relationship to the text that allowed us to observe the functioning of cultural narratives while a protective layer of irony prevented those narratives from connecting with us on an emotional level. Noting that our relationship to culture had fundamentally changed, politicians and businesses began to adapt their narratives to appeal to people with a postmodern sensibility hence the rise of films and adverts that mock themselves whilst also encouraging you to part with your money:
Sure, the Avengers franchise is a collection of terrible films designed to sell lunch boxes and video games to children but it features jaded millionaires delivering expensively-scripted one-liners… it’s self-aware about how awful it is!
Sure, Cadbury’s are trying to convince you to buy cheap chocolate but they’re not actually asking for your money… they’re showing their awareness of the absurdity of advertising by making adverts about drumming gorillas!
Sure Boris Johnson and Beppe Grillo are politicians intent upon imposing right-wing ideology on their respective voters but they don’t talk like politicians and they’ve appeared on TV making jokes… they’re subverting the old rules of political campaigning!
As politicians and corporations adapted their sales pitches to fit an evolving marketplace, people’s preferences began to shift again in search of a new relationship to the text. Having assumed a position of ironic detachment only to have this position subsumed by ironic PR campaigns, people used the tools they had at hand and began to reduce their attention spans. What better way to prevent what you see from getting to you than by continuously switching from one text to another by first flipping channels and then using social media as a ‘second screen’ to distract and distance from the demands of the first?
As with most defensive fortifications, our shields of irony and distraction are mostly undermined from within as our need to protect ourselves from certain kinds of narrative co-exists with an even more pressing desire for stories that will make us laugh, cry and generally feel good about ourselves. The resulting arms race between content producers and content consumers demands the creation of fresh aesthetics with all new narrative techniques that allow great art to connect with our profoundly ambivalent souls. Long-running shows like The Simpsons show the changes in our palate as the satirical narratives of the early seasons gave way first to postmodern pastiche and then to strings of non-sequiturs that draw their emotional energy from new forms of audience engagement. According to Rushkoff:
Through whichever form of postmodern pyrotechnics they practice, these programs attack the very institutions that have abused narrative to this point: advertisers, government, religions, pop culture sellouts, politicians and even TV shows themselves. They don’t work their magic through a linear plot, but instead create contrasts through association, by nesting screens within screens, and by giving the viewers the tools to make connections between various forms of media. It’s less like being walked along a pathway than it is like being taken up high and shown a map. The beginning, the middle, and the end have almost no meaning. The gist is experienced in each moment as new connections are made and false stories are exposed or reframed. In short, these sorts of shows teach pattern recognition, and they do so in real time.
Thus the tools we built begin to build us. Trained by our culture to be detached from the text we are reading, we are also becoming increasingly detached from ourselves as traditional concepts of self informed by broad cultural narratives are giving way to the dysfunctional cyphers of the therapist’s couch. Pattern recognition has taught us to recognise cultural narratives and how those narratives have impacted upon our personalities but our learned distrust of those same narratives leaves us unwilling to draw on them hence the emergence of the post-narrative personal narrative that casts us as terrified children running through life with no idea of who we are or where we want to be, passive victims of whichever oppressive forces best suit our particular circumstances. This state of narrative collapse also explains why books and films aimed at teenagers have come to dominate the Western cultural landscape: Alienated from the very concept of personal narrative, we identify with children who are still in the process of assembling their adult identities. Though we may grow older, our preferred characters remain forever young and forever on the cusp of an adult world that seems completely beyond us. Thus, we are infantilised by our culture and trapped in a state of perpetually arrested development.
Wolves captures this state of narrative collapse by blurring the lines between past, present, memory and experience. Rather than keeping the different narrative strands separate and presenting new information in a way that guides us towards particular conclusions, the book presents the information as a series of disconnected thoughts and images. This distinctive narrative structure is then revisited at every level of the novel beginning with a series of impressive set pieces such as a race through the decaying British countryside where houses, places and figures loom up out of the darkness without warning. Equally filled with linguistic fireworks is the sequence in which Conrad drags a body through a surreal landscape filled with abandoned fridges and masturbating blind men. Though Conrad remains an unsympathetic character with a frankly uninteresting life, his complete inability to either find or orient himself in a rapidly changing world is pure 21st Century Now.
Conrad’s inability to find himself is evident in his self-professed tendency to fall in love with people’s worlds as well as his intense envy of Michel who lives his life according to very precise plans that are rooted in an unchanging image of who he is and where he is headed. It also manifests itself as a hatred of driven careerists hence Conrad’s decision to hitch his professional wagon to the star of a gifted rich boy who seems quite content to experiment with new AR techniques but without any clear idea of what he wants to do with his company. When a Billionaire eventually buys up the new company and makes the founding partners very rich men, Conrad tumbles into a paranoid fantasy in which the Billionaire is involved in the death of his mother. Tellingly, when this is revealed to be nothing more than a delusion, Conrad immediately loses interest and carries on as though nothing much had happened. There are no real arcs to Conrad’s life but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t willing to try a couple on for size when the opportunities present themselves.
The book’s aversion to personal and cultural narratives is also evident in its profound aversion to anything resembling a traditional genre trope: The book may a drowned England reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and a futuristic tech start-up reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon but neither set of tropes receives much attention. The focus of the novel is not on the future but on a pervasive and ravening present that makes the very concept of a meaningful future seem downright laughable.
This hostility underpins not only Conrad’s rejection of Michel’s long-term planning but also the manifest contempt he has for the science fiction novel that winds up making Michel a fortune. Ings devotes an entire chapter to quoting at length from Michel’s novel but he concludes with an aside that could just as easily have come from Conrad, Michel or Ings himself:
On and on and on, over half a million words of this shit and counting, the literary equivalent of diarrhoea – once begun, why stop?
In her own fascinating essay on Wolves, Nina Allan positions Ings as part of a neglected current in the river of British science fiction, a tide of anger and experimentation that exploded out of genre circles only to be co-opted and immediately forgotten by mainstream commercial publishing. Upon first engaging with the book, I found myself asking the dread question of whether it was actually SF and while the book’s stylistic ambition and focus on the present would suggest that it has more in common with the mainstream than genre, I think that this has more to do with the ever-deepening cowardice of genre publishing than it does with the nature of science fiction. This is obviously a book that is in conversation with science fiction, you just need to know how to listen. As Allan puts it:
Wolves is clearly related to and descended from the those texts that have been variously branded ‘miserabilist’ or ‘mundane SF’ (or more recently, by Adam Roberts in a review at his blog, ‘Glumpunk’) but that are arguably the true heirs to the British New Wave, the new New Wave, if you will, a kind of ultra-near-futurism that holds up a divining mirror to contemporary reality. We read Wolves and remember Christopher Kenworthy’s decaying Barrow-in-Furness in The Quality of Light, the stark weirdness of Nicholas Royle’s Counterparts, Joel Lane’s fury at Thatcher in From Blue to Black. But it is in its relationship with the new New Wave’s urtexts, M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life and the story collection The Ice Monkey, that Wolves displays its allegiance most clearly. Harrison’s influence on Ings in Wolves feels pervasive and persuasive, a guiding principle.
Almost from the first page, Wolves put me in mind of M. John Harrison’s Light and, to a lesser extent, the other K-Tract novels. Both works possess two distinct timeframe that overlap and interact in an almost incomprehensible fashion and both works are littered with images torn from the fading pages of old genre paperbacks. In Light, the Jet Age futurism of a 1950s Cadillac sits on the tarmac beside a sentient spacecraft. In Wolves, an aquatic apocalypse lurches in and out of fiction while the wheels of cybernetic enterprise continue to turn unfazed. Both works draw extensively on the history of science fiction but use a variety of different techniques to keep the reader from slipping into their generic comfort zones. Both books are difficult, unforgiving and written in a style designed to ask a complex question in an incredibly simple manner: How can we hope to make sense of the future when we have allowed the present to become incomprehensible?
Much like the K-Tract novels, Wolves is a book that fires a warning shot across the bows of traditional SF. However, where Light felt like a warning of impending collapse, Wolves feels like a warning of impending renewal as Conrad feels like much less of a impenetrable mystery than Harrison’s naked singularities and quantum cats. Slowly but surely, science fiction is pulling itself back together and developing the kinds of literary technique that will allow it to reconnect with a world much-changed since the days of the Golden Age. The fact that a book as brilliant and demanding as Wolves appears to sit somewhere between genre publishing and mainstream publishing is yet more proof that it is doing something that is both right and necessary.