No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012/65: Dead Water -- Simon Ings

They have no idea where they are, or when, but they are beginning to grasp that geography matters less to them than it matters to the living. They make their own journeys with the stories they tell. They fashion – somehow, they don’t yet know how – their own escapes. They survived a barren and virtually unpeopled Arctic: they’ll make a story of this place too. Stories are their breath. Their food. Their blood. And they’re getting stronger. [location 795]
The term 'dead water' refers to the phenomenon of a ship making no headway through waters of different densities and temperatures. It also, in this novel, encodes a global conspiracy involving shipping containers and a mad magnate. The plot of Dead Water -- Simon Ings' best novel yet, I believe; certainly the one I've enjoyed most -- reels from the wreck of the airship Italia in the Arctic (1928) to a nightmarishly-detailed train crash in India (1995), to the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, to a private satellite network run from a grimy Soho office, to dodgy deals done in Dubai, to a ship seized by pirates off Sri Lanka. In range, cast and complexity it's reminiscent of Ian McDonald (India! djinni!) or Neal Stephenson (a long game of vengeance); the structure calls to mind Cloud Atlas, though Dead Water is not a nested narrative. It's also marvellously poetic, and often blackly humorous.

It's bloody hard to write about. <g>

This is a dense novel, a great deal of observation and examination shoehorned in around the plot(s). It's to Ings' credit that his excursions into side-story don't feel forced; the pace seldom slackens, and when it does it's necessary respite. But everything within Dead Water is connected, though some connections are more tenuous than others.

I learnt a lot from this novel. A lot about shipping containers, obviously: but also about the unique problems of building skyscrapers in the desert; forgery techniques in Mumbai; the biological origin of ambergris; fluid dynamics, in smoke as well as water; the impact of 9/11 on the global shipping industry; how to evade bureaucracy when sailing from Darwin to Timor ...

I was fascinated by the boys Abhik and Kaneer, whose life existence is changed by the sudden appearance of a Moyse shipping container; by Eric Moyse, reclusive shipping magnate with a vision (and an excellent retirement plan); by Vibeke Dunfjeld, whose physicist sweetheart -- Eric Moyse's protege -- dies in the Italia crash; by Roopa, daughter of a heroic policeman, and her implacable quest for vengeance. But most of all by the boys, unlimited by space and time, eager for stories and for vengeance of their own.

A few plot threads seemed unresolved, but in a novel of this scope it isn't essential to tie up all the loose ends, and the story as a whole is complete.

After the concert he retires to the penthouse suite, orders all light bulbs removed from the apartment, and behind bespoke blackout curtains that utterly extinguish the desert sun he writes a string of clumsy, blindhanded memos giving his staff explicit instructions not to look at him or speak to him unless they’re spoken to. For six months he subsists entirely on black tea, chocolate and pemmican: Arctic rations.[location 3005]

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