Friday 9 September 2011

Book Review | Dead Water by Simon Ings

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Off the coast of Sri Lanka, a tramp steamer is seized by pirates. The captain has his wife and son aboard and knows that their survival depends on giving the pirates exactly what they want. But what can they possibly want with his worn-out ship and its cargo of junk?

On the island of Bali a tsunami washes up a rusting container. Inside, the mummified remains of a shipping magnate missing for 30 years and a hand-written journal of his last days locked within his aluminum tomb.

Through the dusty industrial towns of India's Great Trunk Road, a disgraced female detective tracks a criminal syndicate. Her life has been ruined, but she will have her revenge.

In a backstreet Mayfair office, an automated distress signal is picked up on a private satellite network. A ship is missing. A Dead Water ship. Dead Water is the key to everything. A code name for a covert operation initiated during World War Two. But why is it unravelling now, and what will the consequences be?


You can get the measure of most books within a chapter or two, as a rule. Sometimes a sentence is all it takes; a single sentence, or perhaps a paragraph, and you have a general sense of what's to come, what to expect, whether or not it's in your interests (given your interests) to push on.

Of course equally - though a lot less often - texts can obfuscate their intent... veil those things that they are essentially about in such secrets and half-truths and outright lies as to leave the reader reeling; uncertain as to the narrative import of this character or that plot thread, and grasping desperately at whatsoever happens to come their way, whether it is meaningful or otherwise.

Perhaps half of Simon Ings' seventh novel, Dead Water, had come and gone before I had the slightest clue what in the world was actually going on. Just for starters, there was an airship in the Arctic and some baffling political business in the Persian Gulf -- a government-sponsored coup, I gathered. There followed an awful flood in Uttar Pradesh, a tragic rail crash and, intertwined with it, the creation of a Djinn from twins. Finally in the first of Dead Water's five parts, we meet a beat cop on the trail of her mother's murderer.

I say finally. In fact there's nothing in the least conclusive about our introduction to poor, misbegotten Roopa Vish - nor Eric Moyse, polar explorer come shipping magnate, counter-intelligence officer David Brooks, or little Rishi Ansari from the rice paddies - though she is, as it transpires, one of the myriad protagonists of this generation-spanning mystery meets thriller. As are the others, all of whom we meet in such quick succession as to seem indistinct; some of whom don't pop up again for hundreds more pages; none of whom we can truly know till the truth behind Dead Water is revealed.

And what's that? Well... so far as I can tell, and without giving anything away - perfectly par for the course, then - it's a book about boxes, of a sort. "Boxes and boxes and boxes within boxes: this story has swallowed the earth." (p.174) 

Dead Water is a deeply difficult text to get one's head around -- and by design, I don't doubt, for Ings seems an assiduously intelligent author: dynamic and deliberate, daring and often dazzling. This is never more in evidence than during the catastrophic accident aforementioned, wherein "the Purushottam Express collides with the stalled Kalindi service just outside Firozobad, causing the second-worst rail crash in Indian history" (p.49) and transforming two of its youngest victims into omniscient spirits which in a sense haunt every narrative thereafter.

And what of it?

Ings depicts this pivotal moment in a virtuoso bubble of what I can only describe as bullet-time; breaking down the infinitesimal beats of the collision - a real historical tragedy - with such painful precision as to convey in both the micro and the macro the way the world must seem to stop, to grind to a halt, at such abject horror. Thus the reader feels each and every excruciating snap and buck and break as Abhik and Kaneer come into their strange power, and hundreds die around them, including them.

But though "the boys will spin this story out for as long as they can, they're learning fast, they're getting good at this [...] narrative logic demands that what goes up must come down," (p.42) and so indeed it does, eventually. Sort of. There is, at least, a moment when Dead Water starts to come together; or rather than a single moment of revelation, a point at which its many, many threads - no more than an accumulation of seemingly unrelated events before - are at last entangled. And if this entanglement is not necessarily equal to the task of imbuing meaning upon all the abstracted episodes preceding it, then it serves as a frame of reference - a context - for what remains of Dead Water.

And much remains, even now. For "round the bend is a bend and around that bend is another bend. Madness and despair." (p.337) But it passes. And what takes its place... well. I'll never tell.

It speaks to Dead Water's ineffable power, and craft, and cleverness - yes - that I did not for a second think to put it aside to read something more immediately satisfying, for what satisfaction there is in Simon Ings' novel, in the end, is worth its every ounce in gold... or plutonium. It is intelligent but not, I think, at all pretentious. It is complex, certainly, but only as byzantine as (for instance) the gradual back and forth of a box full of boxes across the Indian ocean.

Imagine Alejandro González Iñárritu had written a novel in the mode of his films Babel and Amores Perros, about the inextricable interconnectedness of not merely language or love but the containers almost everything we care about comes in, and returns to. Dead Water is brilliant, in that fashion. But not natural, and never easy.

Then again, is existence ever such a simple thing?


Dead Water
by Simon Ings

UK Publication: August 2011, Corvus

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