It wasn’t clear how far you were meant to be troubled by Will Wiles’s 2012 debut, Care of Wooden Floors, about a man whose clumsiness while flat-sitting leads to the death of his host’s cleaner, an event the novel seems to brush under the carpet as just another pratfall. Wiles’s next book, The Way Inn, a slow-release sci-fi horror about a bland hotel chain popular with travelling businessmen, channelling David Lynch as well as David Brent, added to the sense of a smart and interesting writer not yet fully in control of his effects.
That isn’t entirely dispelled by his engaging new novel, which wraps an exploration of technology, authenticity and gentrification around the story of Jack Bick, an alcoholic journalist on a lifestyle magazine in east London. While Bick’s unreliability would seem to make him first in line for looming lay-offs, he has a scoop in the works – a tell-all interview with cult writer Oliver Pierce, whose memoir of being mugged was (he now claims) a hoax. Trouble is, Bick can’t find the recording…
Much rubbernecking comedy ensues as we watch him lie to his editor while smuggling cans of Stella into the office lavatory. The meat of the story, though, concerns what happens when he’s sent on a separate assignment to interview a leading estate agent, Alexander De Chauncey, secretly revolutionising the London rental market in league with a shadowy tech boss, Quin, the brains behind a social networking app that tracks users’ movements around the city.
It’s no surprise when Quin’s app turns out to be far from benign: in one of the novel’s funniest passages, he justifies breaching users’ privacy on the grounds that it widens access to information that “simply resides with particular audiences and not others… If we tweaked the audience of that information, fractionally expanded it… Well, you could call that journalism.”
But while the satire zings, the plot sags. When Pierce persuades Bick to join him in an attempt to get mugged for real – as a kind of atonement – an important gotcha-type reversal falls flat, because the truth or falsity of Pierce’s memoir never feels as earth-shattering as it needs to be. And when, five pages from the end, having got wind of Quin’s plans to use data for social engineering, Bick says he doesn’t “really understand… Why involve me, why go to all this obsessive trouble?”, you can’t help but detect an echo of our own doubts.
Plume is most effective when it sticks to Bick’s own travails, as he frets about why his editor has favourited one of his four-year-old tweets (“Was it a message?”) or admits he changed his name from James Bickerton to Jack Bick because “it sounded more like a Vice writer”. Yet the fun ends up feeling oddly guilty, not just because such moments are ultimately symptoms of the narrator’s breakdown, but because you sense the novel has its sights on being something other than a sparky office comedy of 21st-century media manners, which is a pity, because it’s a good one.
• Plume by Will Wiles is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99