Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
It’s barely possible to talk about Simon Ings’ latest novel Wolves without using the description Ballardian. It’s inevitable: the crunch and grind of urban life; the uber awareness of bodies and brains and the body horror of augmentation; the overwhelming bleakness of depression, ennui and of burdens and crosses to bear from both the past and the future.
Wolves is a strange, worrying book. Ings has stated that in a way, Wolves, when unpublished, predicted the worst year of his life — and so it makes sense that it be such an uncomfortable, tense read. This is a book that demands much from its reader — and I’m not certain it gives as much back as it takes. But whether a book needs be as rewarding as it is demanding is a very personal matter, a choice each independent reader must make. Wolves will force its readers to make this choice, but very likely, many readers will find the going rough.
There is a great deal to be disturbed by in Wolves, with a constant feeling of Unheimliche, that strange feeling of uncanny that comes from something that is both familiar and not. For this is not the most obvious of dystopias, but it is, in a way, more frightening because of the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance present in the narrative — not just for the protagonist Conrad, who is constantly trying to resolve something that happened to him years ago, unable to really come to terms with finding his mother’s body in the boot of the family car, unable to accept the trauma he experienced as a teenager, but also for the reader, who is trapped in this heavy, atmospheric, claustrophobic environment with Conrad, unable to get out or get another perspective on the world or this story. Conrad, as protagonists go, is not a particularly nice man. His motives are often ignoble, his telling of the story not always clear or specific — the novel’s narrative is often a sort of emotional impressionism, details evident when you step back but shimmering into smudges when you stare at them up close.
The narrative switches between Conrad the adult and Conrad the child. Conrad the adult is trying to piece his life back together after a terrible car accident that caused the car to be “a plastic egg box crushed slowly under a heel,” an accident that has destroyed his girlfriend’s hands, leaving her with “big white plastic clown” prosthetics and leaving him unable to live with or love her. He escapes his relationship to visit a childhood friend, Michel, who “never had and never would see the point in team games,” and is now attempting to build an arc to save him from the end of days, while he writes an epic dystopic novel that he hopes will fund his seafaring life. Conrad is intrigued by Michel’s girlfriend Hanna, and remains so throughout the book, even as their lives change, intertwine, push together and pull apart.
Conrad the child grows up in a ramshackle old hotel near a housing estate, living in a “weird, free floating light-industrial suburbia, unable to tell which of several nearby towns would swallow” them first. His father works with “the concussed, the confused, the psychogenically deaf. [Dad] took special care of the soldiers blinded in the field by antipersonnel weapons,” fitting them with echolocation devices to help them regain some form of “sight.” Servicemen who “pecked their way across the lawn like crows,” with faces hidden by large black goggles as they “stood sniffing the air like an animal in a zoo. Aware of [their] captivity but unable to fathom it.”
Conrad’s mother is diagnosed as bipolar but will not take any medication, resulting in frequent extreme highs and lows. During her manic episodes, she makes annual pilgrimages to a protest camp set up around a nearby military base, where Conrad once finds her “squatting among a heap of green nylon refuse sacks … Black wool. Busy fingers. Filthy hands.” Her death comes as no surprise — it is something the reader expects, something gruesome and hideous that we look forward to reading more about, having been told it will happen just a few pages into the story. Ings is good at making his reader uncomfortable: this feeling of knowing what grotesqueries may come, yet waiting and almost hoping for them — this is what much of Wolves is about.
Conrad as an adult attempts to recreate the world in artificial visions when he joins an Augmented Reality start up and creates virtual reality overlays for his firm, adding to reality and basic human vision with various things, whether it be advertising or role playing games. As he explains to Hanna, “With AR, you can thread private and public spaces through each other. You can turn public spaces into private screening rooms. Augmented Reality will change how space is used.”
It isn’t just Ballard who comes to mind with Wolves. McEwan comes into play here too — a secret from the past, potentially something not understood, something not entirely accepted or resolved haunts Conrad for decades, until he is able to absorb and accept the entire truth, and more importantly, to admit the impact it had on him. Wolves isn’t just about a potentially dark and frightening future in which being hunted may well become real in a world that is imagined by someone else, but also about the demons, the wolves from our pasts that can tear us apart at the slightest provocation. Having spent years as a pure science writer, Ings has returned to fiction with a strong, albeit imperfect vision, and a tense, almost over-wrought story.