With his first novel about looking after an engineered wood floor, and a second novel about what it is like to stay in a chain hotel, Will Wiles seems determined to corner the market in unpromising literary subjects. His latest novel, Plume, is about a chap who lives in a rented flat in London and who works in an office. Hooray! — the sainted few who are already Wiles fans will learn this with their hearts pumping with anticipatory happiness. Mine certainly did.
A quick summary is appropriate, as Wiles’s novels remain, for now, under-regarded. Care of Wooden Floors (2012) was exactly what it said on the tin. The narrator flies to a European city to house-sit an apartment of an absent friend called Oskar. Oskar is fastidiously house-proud, and demands only that the greatest care be taken of his specially installed wooden floor. In a mere eight days a classic comic inferno ensues.
The Way Inn (2014) was an exercise in surrealism, disguised as a satire on modern business conferences. The protagonist was in fact the hotel alluded to in the title, one of a multinational chain. Neither we nor Neil Double, a conference surrogate who stands in for unwilling delegates and reports back later, realise this at first. He loves everything about chain hotels, while we recognise the same bland budget features we’ve never really noticed before, and shudder enjoyably. Think Jacques Tati’s Playtime, with the imaginative energy of J.G. Ballard.
The plume of Plume is the column of stinking black smoke rising above an explosion at a fuel depot in Barking. The sky darkens. Jack Bick, a profile writer for a magazine, feels as if he is the only person in London to notice this catastrophic event. Days later, with the plume still there, and apparently changing position so that Bick is constantly aware of it wherever he goes, we realise that there’s a tremblingly delirious quality to his perception. Everything is mounting up against him: he is struggling to keep his job, his landlord won’t repair his flat, his neighbour has builders destructively excavating a few extra floors beneath the basement, his boss is constantly watching and timing his movements, he is taunted by visions of cockatoos, and then there is the Need. The Need is the clue to everything, accounting for all his troubles.
Bick is a functioning (just about) alcoholic, in full acceptance of the condition while denying almost everything else. Into this mix comes the urgent requirement to write a profile of a successful novelist called Oliver Pierce. His latest book, a kind of psycho-geography of London streets, contained a vivid description of what happened when he was mugged. When they are in a bar, no surprise, Pierce confesses that he made the whole thing up. A scoop for Bick — but he loses the recording of the conversation, throwing him again and again into Pierce’s dangerous comradeship. Pierce wants another go at being mugged. They trawl the night streets of bad parts of London, hoping to meet a thug or two. They fail even at this.
Speaking of psychogeography, Wiles, through his character Pierce, voices a memorable rant against the whole literary sub-genre, which he finds intolerable: the lost rivers of London, the ghost Tube stations. In fact, Pierce has recently abandoned an attempt to write the ultimate psycho-geography of London, ‘pinning down every mystical wrinkle, backwoods fact and obscure snip of folklore’. His intention, Casaubon-like, was to define and finish the genre, putting everyone else out of the business. If only, Wiles implies.
This is the real Wiles: deeply in the world he describes, but a safe satirical step or two back from it. A more vivid rendering of modern London life would be hard to imagine: the mobile phone taxi apps, pubs recommended by interactive websites, property scams, job insecurity and terraced houses being converted into underground skyscrapers with private pools. The book is joy unconfined: the reader is sucked along unstoppably, but glorying too with uncomfortable recognition. Fabulous in every sense.