Fiction by numbers

Aritha van Herk in the Calgary Herald, August 13, 2006.

As if befuddled by numbers, which have always daunted me, I have to dial Simon Ings’ telephone number in London several times before I get it right. I have no excuse for befuddlement; but having just become father to a brand new baby, Ings does. He, however, is bright and chipper, enjoying the attention his new novel, The Weight of Numbers, is receiving, looking forward to his upcoming visit to Canada, and to performing at Calgary’s International Word Fest. Because of his new child, we talk for a few moments about children’s stories and how they have become anodyne.

Ings tells me that he creates interesting variations for his children. “They love blood and gore. Leave them alone and listen behind the door and you can feel your blood curdle,” he says, laughing. But he is pragmatic too. “The worst crime you can commit as a parent is to be dull.” Dull Simon Ings is not.

Best known as a science fiction or cyberpunk writer, his latest book has earned him comparisons to Paul Auster and Don DeLillo. Like them, Ings takes as his subject how humans cruise the hyperventilated contemporary world. With this work, The Weight of Numbers, Ings shifts ground from the future to the present, from genre fiction to serious literary style. It is a sprawling labyrinth of a novel, not at all linear, and daunting in its reach and ambition.

Ings tells me, “it was originally going to be a book of inter-linked stories. I had written fairly small brash books before, but with this book, I was re-inventing myself as a writer. “I wanted to create a poly-historical novel, like Kundera does, one that works through theme rather than narrative. But perhaps because I’ve spent my life writing thrillers and science fiction, my plot head could not be silenced. What I discovered is that the world is bigger than you are; and that all stories connect to one another.”

If there is one unifying principle in The Weight of Numbers it is that, despite the randomness of time and circumstance, humans cannot escape connection — the six degrees of separation rule. Ings claims, “the whole point of the book is connection, and that everything is connected to everything else.” At the same time, he is pragmatic, observing that writing about “six degrees of separation is itself a moment that has probably come to its end.”

This great sprawling novel is both great and sprawling, its subject the 20th century itself, time made small and history inescapable. The back stories that twine through the book include astronauts and wrestlers, truckers and astronauts, anorexic actresses and kidnapped children. It moves from the war in Mozambique to the Blitz in London, touches down in Portsmouth, Chicago, Cape Canaveral, Portugal, Havana, and outer space.

It mixes real people with fictional characters. Geri Halliwell, Vanessa Redgrave and Ewan McGregor make cameo appearances. Neil Armstrong puts his foot down on the dust of the moon. The Weight of Numbers zigzags between revolutions and accidents, outer space and personal space, genocide and anorexia. And yet, for all this shifting chiaroscuro of characters and places, rackets and raconteuring, The Weight of Numbers is ultimately poignant and intimate, a portrait of this brave new world we inhabit spinning patiently through darkness. The causal connections between humans and events, politics and poetry, might seem incidental, but they map the terra incognita of accident and activism, and how we are all, in some indecipherable way, knotted together. Ings isn’t so much philosophical about the novel’s big sweep as he is modest. “I think for me the plot is really these characters learning how to put up with human unhappiness; they begin with a sense of personal size, but walk away aware of the limitations of ordinary life.”

“To actually develop idea, I found myself needing a much larger canvas. I am not a good enough writer to be able to play that arc out in a handful of pages, although there are lots of short story writers who can turn a life on a penny. I wanted to explore a broader canvas, the ruin of history.”

The Weight of Numbers travels far and furiously, with characters both participants in and witnesses to key moments of history. It’s jittery and jet-setting, and it asks the reader to forego the usual expectations of cause and effect. Ings has written a novel utterly contemporary in its conception and preoccupation, as if translating the multiple sites of the World Wide Web into fiction. The difficulty is whether our attenuated attention spans can manage such demanding reading. Ings himself has a lifetime of experience under his belt. When I ask him about his research methods, he mentions that he has written about “the world of wrestling, the theatre of war, sports, trade, and teaching.”

He tells me about attending a competition for the world’s strongest women. “I got to meet the world’s strongest women. They were like climbers, dedicated, obsessed, intelligent. They took their bodies completely seriously, hanging from beams, lifting weights.”

He’s travelled all over the world, to Oman, Dubai, Helsinki, Burma. He wrote his 1994 novel, The City of the Iron Fish, in six weeks in a brothel in Oporto, Portugal. Not many writers could pull off a novel that is really about the 20th century and its melting of space, time and ideology. Does he believe that we are all ghosts in the globalized machine? “Politics,” he says carefully, “is a human business, what happens if ideology has stopped and survival becomes just a numbers game. Ideology can lead to interesting experiments, but as a life philosophy, it is easily punctured. At the same time, in a lot of the world, where ideology really counts, it can be a life and death matter.

“There’s a sense at the end of the book that all politics have been thrown away and that ideology doesn’t work because it can’t move fast enough to match history. Only people can will human life and work in favour of better human conduct.”

Ings won the the Arena O2 X Award for The Weight of Numbers. He tells me that it’s an “ordinary” award for which he got “a hug and a perspex Joe Strummer (guitarist for the Clash) statuette.” Because he has always written reviews and articles for Science magazines, his agent suggested that he write a science book. “Like an idiot I took him on,” says Ings. The resulting tome, The Eye: A Natural History, will appear next year. “You would think that there would be a book on the eye. But there is no book on the eye as a subject. There are books on the human eye, the aging eye, the evolution of the eye, but no single book on the eye. It’s been an albatross around my neck.”

Simon Ings may think that he made a mistake in undertaking a comprehensive book about the eye. But if The Weight of Numbers is any indication, it will be as clear-sighted and fascinating as the man himself. And it will be, without question, beautifully written. Ings promises to be one of the highlights of this fall’s Word Fest, original and yet as human as mathematical probability will allow.

Aritha van Herk can add, subtract, balance a chequebook and imagine probability. She lives and writes in Calgary.

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