Will Wiles’s hugely entertaining third novel resembles nothing so much as a Nathan Barley for the Brexit generation, and is as dark and uproarious as that sounds. His protagonist, Jack Bick, is a hard-drinking east London journalist who has to interview a series of frauds, from a literary novelist he suspects of having faked his own mugging to an estate agent with a morally dubious scheme to shake up the London lettings market. Wiles takes aim at our self-absorbed, social-media-obsessed generation with real wit, even as an ominous plume of black smoke acts as an ever-present memento mori for his deeply flawed characters.
Wiles’s previous two novels had well-sustained satirical premises. Care of Wooden Floors (2012) is about a housesitting that spirals out of control; The Way Inn (2014) is a horror story set in a chain hotel. Here, though, his argument – that the messiness of lives like Bick’s is what makes London so attractive to investors and developers – is almost too neat. The final chapter is dominated by a Bond villain-esque monologue in which Quin explains Bick’s relevance to his corporate master plan in helpful detail. Wiles’s caricatures are carefully argued, rather than vivid in the style of Martin Amis’s best fiction. His targets are often soft enough: the cost of living in the capital; the malign vacuity of corporate PR; our collective obsession with social media. What distinguishes Wiles is the depth of feeling behind his satire, a quality perhaps informed by his experience as a glossy magazine journalist, and his writing about his own alcoholism.
Wiles, a journalist by trade, is fascinated by the ways that fiction and nonfiction can overlap, and he has knowing fun throughout with meta-discussion: on the importance of ‘strong, obvious beginnings’, on the line between truth and non-truth – and the relevance of such a boundary – in the pursuit of narrative. The novel, however, is a little unbalanced in its focus: much of it is devoted to Bick’s quest to file the Pierce profile, and the accompanying narrative pace is often rather slow. Quin’s near-omniscient system is a very good idea that never quite reaches its potential. Wiles is engaging as a state-of-the-city commentator, but there’s a dystopian plotline in here that could have been developed into a much more profound vision.
Above all, there’s the ever-present plume, “plump and oily, an umbilicus filling the sky with the poison of the earth”. What’s never clear is whether this blot on the landscape is partly a product of the narrator’s fevered imagination: “This plume had nothing to do with the fire. I feared it had nothing to do with any fire.” As in his previous novels, Wiles’s blend of satire and surrealism does not always score a direct hit. But like the mysterious column of smoke, it’s getting closer all the time.
Much rubbernecking comedy ensues as we watch [Bick] lie to his editor while smuggling cans of Stella into the office lavatory... But while the satire zings, the plot sags... Plume is most effective when it sticks to Bick’s own travails, as he frets about why his editor has favourited one of his four-year-old tweets (“Was it a message?”) or admits he changed his name from James Bickerton to Jack Bick because “it sounded more like a Vice writer”. Yet the fun ends up feeling oddly guilty, not just because such moments are ultimately symptoms of the narrator’s breakdown, but because you sense the novel has its sights on being something other than a sparky office comedy of 21st-century media manners, which is a pity, because it’s a good one.
It’s inward-looking and faintly absurd but in a way that transmits the cloying substance of the city and its own navel-gazing. Plume’s cast of semi-sinister clowns aren’t the most sympathetic, but it’s the suffocating, Ballardian sense of place and mental and physical deterioration that Wiles, a design and architecture writer when not a novelist, does so horribly well. Plume is about a man trapped in a prison of his own making who endlessly gets nowhere at all.
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.
Wiles takes us deep into a subtly altered London at the mercy of the malign forces of gentrification, and seemingly in the hands of a mysterious tech maven whose new app can track every user at all times.
The narrative struggles to cohere, but it is an eerie and sometimes pretty sharp satire on the more sinister commodifications of modern life.