Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy. Confusing the two loves is easier still. I spend the day wandering round the house in mourning for it all. Mandy's kitchen. Mandy's underwear. Mandy's pillows and shoes. I love her scarves and her seven different kinds of toothpaste (a flavour for each day of the week). I love those little blue bottles of essential oils gathering dust on her bathroom shelf. I was always a sucker for Mandy's world. Her visits to out-of-the-way antique shops. Her cutlery drawer, every knife and fork a 'piece.' Wine glasses from an arcade near the Palace of Sports. Cushions from a woman who lives on one of the old lime tree avenues in the Turkish quarter. In Mandy's world, everything has an aesthetic value. The humblest objects acquire a small but telling erotic change. (p. 20)
Perhaps it is an accident of reading or just something that is part of the espirit du temps, but in the past decade there seems to have been an increase in stories of individual and societal collapse. Whether it is television specials about how the world would change without humans, conferences on climate and global warming that speculate on how these changes would negatively impact human life, or speculative fictions on post-disaster life, ruination is a hot topic. Louis XV might have said, "Après moi le déluge," but for quite a few of us living today, it feels like that deluge is about to overwhelm us at any moment. This certainly can be seen in our contemporary literature, where natural crises serve as a way of exploring our own fragile place in a seemingly more hostile world.
In his latest novel, Wolves, British writer Simon Ings explores the effects of this increasingly pessimistic world-view. Set in the very near future, it is a novel that attempts to do several things at once: develop a contemporary coming-of-age tale that mixes in futuristic elements like "augmented reality" with crime tropes, while also making a pointed commentary on this recent infatuation with worlds, real and imagined. The execution, however, is spotty, with some elements feeling underdeveloped. Yet despite this, Wolves largely succeeds in making the reader consider the import of the issues raised within it.
The core story revolves around two boys, Conrad and Michel, and their complex relationship with each other over a span of decades. Told through Conrad's point of view, their lives, beginning with their adolescence and continuing a couple of decades later, is at times banal. There are frustrated loves, the inability to integrate themselves within society as a whole, and their own complicated set of feelings for and about each other. This banality contrasts well with Michel's dreams of apocalypse, of society's impending collapse. The worlds he imagines affects Conrad in subtle ways. One example is seen in the passage quoted above, where the adult him describes his failing relationship with a woman who had lost her hands in a car crash they were in. Conrad thinks in worlds and objects, but rarely in his dealings with women is there a sense of any true understanding of humanity. For him, humanity has been replaced by its material objects – worlds, if you will.
This lack of empathic understanding can also be seen in the mystery of his mother's death and his ill-conceived notion of hiding her body after he discovers it in the "boot" (trunk?) of the family car. There is some mystery behind her death, but it is not adequately fleshed out. Instead, the focus goes more and more in the latter half of the novel on the augmented reality that a rich, blind capitalist has developed based on some of the epic fantasies that Michel has written in the two decade interim. There are some witty remarks about the shortcomings of this replacement of reality with this "augmented" version, but ultimately this plays second fiddle to the Conrad/Michel relationship.
Frequently I found myself wishing that Ings had fleshed things out a bit more or at least had pared down certain elements. The murder mystery subplot fizzled for the most part, with only a few sparks toward the end. The same applies to Conrad's ill-fated relationships with women; it served to illustrate how ill-socialized he was, but other than that, it occasionally detracted from his primary relationship. Ings' meta-commentaries on invented world creation and societal desires to "escape" from gloomier times were mostly spot-on, yet at times they too were not developed as well as they could have been.
With so many desires for something to be amplified or pared down, it would be easy to conclude that Wolves was a failed fiction. Yet for all its flaws, there is something about the presentation of these elements, perhaps the ambition behind this attempt to portray lives affected by dreams of living something, anything else than their own lives, that makes Wolves such a compelling read. Some novels are memorable not for how well they succeeded, but for their ambitious shortcomings. Wolves is one of those novels. It may not be technically great in all regards, but its ambitions, regardless of how realized they may have been, make this a worthwhile reading experience.