What Gogol was to Russia in the nineteenth century, what Mallarmé was to France in the twentieth, and what David Foster Wallace might well be to America in the twenty first, so JG Ballard is to England: a gaunt and charismatic spectre, intent on provoking its writers out of negligence, complacency, banality, sloth. It seems the ghost is succeeding, quietly. Since the 1990s, a number of literary figures have appeared in England whom we might collectively term the Ballardians or the post-Ballardians, among them philosophers such as John Gray and Simon Critchley, critics like Mark Fisher, novelists like Will Self, Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke, and now Will Wiles. Of course, this a very diverse list of names – not in terms of gender or ethnicity, for sure, but in terms of talent – yet every one of them, in different ways, can be seen as emerging out of Ballard’s overcoat, or out of his crushed automobile fender, or his semen-hued motorway embankment, or whatever the appropriate metaphor may be. In defiance of England’s notorious middlebrow norms, these writers turn away from class-anxiety and family and identity and all the rest of it, choosing instead to explore and to map our glamorously inauthentic modernity, described by Ballard in his celebrated introduction to the French edition of Crash as “a world ruled by fictions of every kind.”
And, for Ballard – a proponent of utopian, avant-garde architecture – one of the privileges of living in such a world was beholding the weird spectacle of its built environment. In a 2003 interview, he revealed that his favourite building in London was the Heathrow Hilton, an enormous “white cathedral” of glass and concrete at the edge of the airport park. “Most hotels,” he said, “are residential structures, but rightly the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge, as befits an airport annexe. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.”
Surely Will Wiles (an incisive architecture critic himself) had Ballard’s words in mind when he wrote the following lines, from his n novel The Way Inn. Neil Double, his enigmatic protagonist, is sitting in the lobby of a mid-range airport hotel. He draws a great deal of Ballardian pleasure from the bland surroundings, and tries to figure out why:
True, it was a space to be passed through, not a space to really be in, to inhabit or somehow make significant. Not a place to labour or decide or worship or build or fall in love, or whatever acts we are supposed to perform in other, more authentic places… There was value to deliberately forgettable environments. They were efficient, spiritually thrifty, requiring little heed and little mindfulness. They were hygienic in that way; aseptic. Nothing from them would linger on you.
Double knows all about “deliberately forgettable environments”. He is a “conference surrogate” by profession, i.e. he is paid by large corporations to attend dull, expensive, out-of-the-way conferences and expos so they don’t have to; he collects the tote bags and branded USB keys and a few days later they collect his report. This of course means enormous amounts of time spent travelling between corporate hotels and convention centres, motorways and airport terminals, those smooth grey structures at the edges of towns which Marc Augé has unforgettably called “non-places.” Despite the uniformity of his destinations, Double doesn’t seem to dislike his job in the slightest. Indeed, he is something of a connoisseur of the hotel; a flaneur of its artificially-lit corridors; a poet of its climate-controlled rooms, with their ‘latte-coloured’ carpets and their views of gridded nothingness beneath clouds of ‘muesli-milk white’. Like any good ironic hero, he is half in love with the thing he is supposed to despise.
The first of the book’s three sections, entitled ‘The Conference’, follows Neil as he makes his way between his hotel and the adjoining conference centre, brooding along the way on such topics as hotel architecture, hotel staff, hotel furniture, hotel art, and hotel breakfast buffets. Here, as in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (perhaps this novel’s intellectual sibling), we are presented with what amounts to a series of sketches and riffs, centred on a certain kind of globalized capitalism. Yet McCarthy’s novel, for all its brilliance, ultimately suffered from an age-old flaw, it was devoid of structure. Without a central metaphor to sharpen its eye, without a Jamesian circle to give form to the action, the whole book ended up feeling like no more than a very long and very clever blog post, with all of a blog’s virtues, and all of its capacities for getting nowhere. Wiles, on the other hand, is sensible enough to focus his considerable observational powers on the titular hotel and its surroundings, and to allow broader truths to emerge, as it were, naturally. Rich comic attention is paid to lifts and corridors and key-cards and showers, to the deadening drone of Muzak and the eeriness of eternally smiling receptionists, to finely tended “meditation gardens” that are really just smoking areas. Much of Section One works by a process of accumulation, each perception building on from the previous one, amounting to an impressively coherent survey of a “temporary city” which delights in its own falseness, which fetishizes the personal and yet remains fundamentally inhuman.
On the welcome screen in his room, for instance, Neil is greeted by “a stock photo of a group of Way Inn staff, or models playing Way Inn staff”. Later, he reflects on a cuboid chair standing in the corridor: “It was not there to be sat in – it was there to make the corridor appear furnished, an insurance policy against emptiness and bleakness”. A piece of bland abstract art on his wall is not really a painting but merely “an approximation of what a painting might look like”. This last phrase is wonderful, I think. Notice how he doesn’t say “what a painting looks like”, but, instead, “what a painting might look like”. The point here is not that the painting isn’t “real”, but that it doesn’t need to be: in the hotel’s miniature cosmos, the bland laws of consolation and comfort triumph over all.
Gems like this are what give the first section of The Way Inn its stimulating and peculiar glow. Wiles’s eye for space and architecture is consistently superb. He is very good on the ways in which interior design can be used to manipulate, the methods by which a bit of cheap “atmosphere” can be summoned (as with the chair that nobody sits in). This is Wiles-the-critic at work, prowling the half-lit hallways with his nose out, sniffing for hints of bullshit, and coolly, smirkingly, taking notes on whatever bullshit he happens to find. Elegantly weaving together his array of intellectual precedents – from Ballard to Augé, from Fredric Jameson (who wrote of the Westin Bonaventure in LA that it “aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”) to Mark Fisher (whose book Capitalist Realism posited that “capitalism now seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”) – the author’s project is spacious enough to include traces of Gaston Bachelard’s thought, the doyen of modern architects whose 1958 book The Poetics of Space explored the dialectical relationship between “the house” and “the universe” in terms which correspond to the Way Inn’s epigraph, from Jorge Luis Borges: “The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.”
Wiles-the-novelist, however, is a far less sophisticated creature. He can suffuse the inanimate with wonderful colours, but in other, arguably more important aspects of this novel, he remains as greyly unsatisfying as the world he is parodying. His characters don’t do anything except give Neil an opportunity to rant (and Neil’s rants about people, unlike his rants about the hotel, are entirely uninspired) or serve to accelerate Wiles’ convoluted Twilight Zone-esque plot. There is the ‘mysterious’ woman Neil keeps seeing in the bar – who eventually acts like a kind of Trinity figure (from The Matrix, I mean), or like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception. She exists only to guide Neil, and by extension the reader, through the absurd, byzantine rules and exceptions that characterize the book’s final-act swerve into the paranormal. Though he is supposedly in love with her – and no convincing evidence is ever given for why he might be – she does nothing remotely charming or funny or thought-provoking. All she does is say ridiculous things like “As well as not being your fuck buddy… I’m not your therapist or your babysitter”, and, later, to clarify “Do you remember our little talk? About fucking? About how it’s not going to happen?” This, we begin to suspect, isn’t even a parody of Ballard’s notoriously wooden dialogue, or of vulgar movie-talk – this is just bad writing. Wiles’ description, a little later, of a shadowy management figure being hit by a chair, clearly intended as a shocking moment of violence, is in fact a catalogue of genre clichés: “Dee swung the chair out from under the table… and brought it down on Hilbert with the sum of her strength… the blow was sickening… he buckled and bent over… and emitted an animal roar” The sum of her strength, the sickening blow, the animal roar: This is what it happens when you draw your most important lessons from Baudrillard rather than Beckett, from Jameson rather than James, when you value theoretical matters above human matters. As it turns out, good writing always occurs at the confluence between talent and intelligence. Wiles definitely has the intelligence, but over and over again in The Way Inn, his poor dialogue, his off-the-shelf characters and his barren prose accentuate a lack of that other crucial quality.
The author’s incompetence in human matters becomes awfully clear as the book goes on. There is no other word for it – incompetence. Twenty years ago, it might have seemed the case that a novel of this kind, taking shots at capitalist logic and corporate blandification, establishing characters who didn’t feel real because they weren’t meant to be real, digressing freely about this or that aspect of late capitalism – it might have seemed that such a novel couldn’t do all those things successfully while also at the same time containing a true and compelling and unironic emotional centre, but David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, and again in The Pale King, and in many of his longer stories, proved that it could be done, and gorgeously so. Unlike Wiles, Wallace was a born novelist, who spent a lifetime inveighing against the postmodern tendency to underplay or dismiss feeling, and he was gifted enough to bring real feeling into a postmodern form. Wiles, though, can’t do feeling, and he usually resorts to feeling’s ugly twin – sentimentality. This is evident in Neil’s forced and unconvincing ‘love’ for Dee, the woman who likes to remind him she’s not his “fuck buddy”, and in a number – far too great a number – of tedious flashbacks to his parent’s divorce, tedious because they neither cast light on Neil’s character nor advance the story nor add any intellectual substance nor contain any passages of value or beauty – because they amount to precisely nothing in the end.
The book’s final revelation is a little predictable. We discover that all of the Way Inn’s hundreds of branches are in fact the same mega-hotel, connected via something like a wormhole (Wiles drops in some nonsense science to give his idea some veracity). In classic sci-fi/fantasy fashion (the same formula applies to time-travel and wizardry), the characters first have a bit of fun with this sudden freedom from physical law, and then, inevitably, they end up having to battle a villain of sort while seeking an escape back to normality. So it plays out. At first, Neil and Dee go for drinks in Way Inn Calgary, then Way Inn Doha, then Way Inn New Orleans. Over whiskies, Dee explains the hotel’s workings, telling us that it has a mind of its own, or something resembling a mind, and that it wants only to spread itself throughout the world. Its goal is total domination. Strangely, though, for such a theoretically literate writer, Wiles doesn’t spend much time exploring the psychological, philosophical, social and metaphysical implications of his conceit. One gets the uneasy sense that he doesn’t much care. He has presented us with this final admonitory image – the world is turning itself into a giant corporate hotel – and now he wants to wrap things up, defeat the bad guy (and there really is a plain, unambiguous bad guy, named Hilbert), and sign off.
Perhaps the supreme irony of The Way Inn is that it functions, aesthetically speaking, as a perfect inversion of the thing it describes. While the titular hotel is essentially a globalized non-space, hostile to the imagination and the heart, which happens nonetheless to be filled with real people, Wiles’ novel is the opposite. It is a fabulously real space, slick, ordered, gleaming, often beautifully furnished with interesting objects and seductive ideas, but it fails, in the end, because it is populated entirely by non-people, whose motives and feelings never convince us because they are non-motives, non-feelings. It would be tempting to believe this was intentional: an overarching structural game on Wiles’ part. But the abundance of contradicting evidence, all the clumsiness, the laziness, all the novel’s clichés of language and story, suggest that this isn’t the case, or couldn’t be.