Conrad was raised in a hotel by a neurotic mother, subject to mood swings and with a habit of taking off to stay with protesters in a camp for months at a time, and a distracted father whose work – helping blinded servicemen see using a weird kind of vest – stops him paying attention to his son. Years later, when we first meet him, he is living with Mandy, an intense artistic sort who has lost both of her hands in a car crash. A call, an invite, out of the blue, seemingly, from his childhood friend Michel is the prompt he needs to leave Mandy – although staying at Michel’s house, with Michel’s girlfriend Hanna, and listening to all their talk about how they’re going to take the boat they are building and live on the high seas after the Fall (the Fall, the end times, what happens after collapse, is Michel’s thing), doesn’t do Conrad – Connie – much good either. As a child, Conrad was given to wandering, and once found himself confronted by one of his father’s blinded servicemen given to exposing himself. We also learn that Conrad and Michel’s relationship was probably sexual as well.
But don’t get distracted. As a grown-up, Conrad is a success, working in the field of AR – augmented reality. He works with a crew of developers, one of whom, Ralf, has big dreams and persuades Conrad to join him on a new start-up (the start-up the pair are involved with six years into going nowhere). The two of them work on the fledgling technology which changes what you see – first through glasses and then through silver lenses – so that buildings can vanish and be replaced by woodland, seven feet actors can walk amongst film crowds publicising new releases, waters can rise and flood entire cities, angels can hang, blobs of light, in the sky viewed from a train. Michel – you remember Michel? childhood friend? – makes a success for himself, writing books (we glimpse a chapter of the book, or possibly a chapter of the book as remembered by Conrad, who tells us it is ‘half a million words of… shit’) and starts to collaborate with Ralf and Conrad on cinematic adaptations of his books, experiences – alongside a fourth partner, a shady character called Bryon Vaux, who – it turns out – was the blinded serviceman given to exposing himself. Vaux was also one of the last people to see Conrad’s mother alive before Conrad himself found her, a carrier bag tied about her face, a suicide, in the back of his father’s car (Conrad charged with hiding the body from his father, losing her in the rush of a river, worrying – where did she go, who saw him?).
But don’t get distracted. There is a party one night while Conrad is staying with Michel and Hanna, Michel doesn’t want to leave, Conrad and Hanna leave, find themselves caught in a storm, almost crash the car, end up sleeping together. Michel and Hanna have a baby – only the baby is possibly Conrad’s. Conrad sees it straight away but it takes Michel’s combative mother Poppy to point out the obvious to everyone else. The relationship between Conrad and Michel and Hanna changes, darkens, stays the same, with things said and unsaid. The world is falling apart. There are floods. Everyone is wearing silver lenses. Did Conrad’s mother kill herself or was she murdered? What does Bryon think Conrad knows? What happened to Conrad’s father and why did he disappear? “When civilisations collapse,” Michel tells Conrad,
‘it’s because they fall out of joint. They deafen on their own feedback. They can no longer imagine themselves.’
In many ways, Wolves feels like a novel that is deafened on its own feedback. In some respects, it is just about the busiest novel I’ve ever read; in others, it seems stitched together from gaps and patches. There are too many words on some things and nowhere near enough on others. It feels like a book in which crucial chapters have been omitted and extended early drafts in need of pruning have been inserted. Toby Litt compared Ings to Ballard. At times, the book is quite Ballardy:
‘Inside its tangle of windowless malls and pedestrian bridges, its banks of stairs and escalators, its short haul lifts and cantilevered walkways, no-one thinks about ‘ground level’, or even expects the numbers on the lifts to match up. There is something exhilarating about this – some atavistic hint of forest canopy.’
But then there are also times when Ings writes like Tim Winton:
‘The fields are planted with cereals. In front of them, in a broad, bright band coming right up to the edge of the rail bed, poppies tremble beneath a cloud of moths. The moths are tiny, white-winged, light as ashes from a bonfire. The gust of our passing catches them and choreographs them, and for a moment they abandon their zig-zag trajectories and give themselves up to the slipstream’s whirl.’
There are exhilarating set pieces – when Conrad is attempting to dispose of his mother’s body, for instance – and moments that feel true, that reveal Ings’ persuasive instinct for human behaviour – I’m thinking of the stormy night on which Conrad and Hanna come together, betrayal offset by the pleasures of sex; it is at these times when Ings is like no-one so much as Rupert Thomson. And yet, for all of its pleasures, Wolves is, at times, immensely frustrating (frustrating in a way that only truly literary novels can be). You find yourself staring at the book rather than reading, scouring the words and the sentences for connections and sense. Why are you telling me this rather than that? You want to implore the book to be more than a series of bits, some of which work and some of which (for this reader) don’t. Where are you going? Will you get there? Will it matter if you do get there – or don’t? By the time you reach the climax (the climax being a place where this book stops rather than a climactic event) you can’t help but share Conrad’s own wisdom:
‘It is hard for me, and not at all reassuring, to discover that life has exacted its own revenge upon him. I thought that was going to be my job. Now I’m here, there doesn’t seem to be much point.’
Any Cop?: For all its moments of worth, for all of the great passages of writing and compelling moments, Wolves is, at the end, a book that leaves you with a sense that here was a book you read when you could’ve been reading something else – and you begrudge the missed opportunity and the pleasure that another book could have brought.