We can only look on in horror tinged with a terrible sense of inevitability


James Flint reviews Dead Water for the Guardian

Anyone familiar with Simon Ings’s previous novel, The Weight of Numbers, which interweaved dozens of stories to show the mathematical logic behind the workings of fate, or indeed his non-fiction study of the evolution of the eye, would know to expect something discursive from this latest novel. But Dead Water, though a slimmer volume, seems to cover even more ground than its predecessors, and at a greater velocity. While Ings puts many story strands into play, it is shipping – and its dark corollary, piracy – that really drives and defines this book. Ings’s ambition is to write from the point of view of the quiet circulation of sea-borne goods that underpins our globalised economy, and the behaviour of all the characters is deliberately in thrall to these flows.
Soon we’re in a strange land where fragments of contemporary philosophy are stitched together with what feel like lost scenes from Robert Ludlum or Ian Fleming. It’s indicative of Ings’s skill that he makes this blend of adventure story and treatise thoroughly compelling.
The action revolves around three main characters: Roopa Vish, an Indian police probationer so obsessed by bringing to justice a powerful gangster that she ends up sleeping with him; Eric Moyse, a shipping magnate, whose brilliantly devious shipping line within a shipping line allows him to hide the world’s most toxic wastes; and David Brooks, an intelligence officer turned pirate double agent, whose orthopaedic shoe and total amorality make him a villain worthy of Bond.
Although the novel starts out a little awkwardly, using the alchemical symbol of the ouroborus and a magical realism device in the form of a pair of vapourised twins to link the various threads, the tale toughens up as Ings’s talents as both thriller writer and science writer come to the fore.
The ouroborus may be a convenient shorthand for the novel’s dynamic, but the central idea that Ings is trying to elucidate is much more rigorous than a mere literary device. It is the discovery, formulated in a moment of clarity by one of the characters on the doomed airship expedition to the North Pole that opens the novel, that waves form, not just at the interface of air and water, but at the interfaces between layers of water – or any gases or liquids – of different densities.
Ings uses this apparently abstruse idea as the engine of his fiction. All the characters, all the stories, are thus located at the interfaces between cultural layers of different densities. And all the characters, whatever their individual wishes and desires, have their destinies moulded by the waves that form there. While they think they are making their own choices, they’re in fact borne along by currents over which they have absolutely no control. Indeed, when they try to break away from these forces, they find themselves falling foul of another concept that Ings brings into play: that of “cavitation”, understood as what happens when a propeller finds itself turning half in air and half in water – or between two layers of water of different density. Instead of producing propulsion, it creates mere foam: “generating empty space within a solid body”.
This is one of the meanings of the “dead water” of the title; it is also the device that Ings uses to create dramatic tension in the absence of any deeper form of self-determination. While the characters are in thrall to forces beyond their ken or control, they do not know this, and as readers we can only look on in horror tinged with a terrible sense of inevitability as Roopa Vish plunges herself ever deeper into the underworld web which will eventually ensnare her; as Eric Moyse tries and fails to vocalise his feelings for the women he’s loved from afar his entire life; as David Brooks manipulates his glamorous but confused daughter for his own ends over and over again.
Dead Water is not as grand a work as The Weight of Numbers, but conceptually it is even more ambitious and once it hits its stride, it displays a subtle and persistent power that confirms Ings as one of the very few British writers to be both contemporary and genuinely challenging.