“Your personal details aren’t the new currency, but they are the new price of admission.”
The Way Inn is an exceptionally well-written novel of acute observation and creative imagery in a world both real and surreal. Will Wiles succeeds throughout with prose that is imaginative and immersive, complex and compelling. Experience the moment as the narrator deals with his dry-cleaning: “I kept tearing at the plastic, pulling it down over the suit until it lay fizzing and crackling on the floor, tremoring with tiny, obscene movements like a deep-sea invertebrate dying on a beach.” Witness the common made extraordinary as a familiar stranger engages with her cell phone: “Whatever her name was, still plucking and probing at her phone, although with visibly waning enthusiasm, like a bird of prey becoming disenchanted with a rodent’s corpse.” Wiles is a writer—an architectural journalist by trade—who sees and hears; who feels and senses; a writer who detects and transmits.
His narrator, Neil Double, is not so smug that we dislike him, nor so secure that we wish him harm. But in his role as “conference surrogate” he is by nature a covert operator. He is a sneak. And like any sneak who moves among the sleepwalking masses of everyday life, he passes off observations as judgment, conclusions about the world around him that are just a little unkind, just a little uncharitable, just a little unflattering, if only because they are entirely true. He may see his fellow expo-goers in the blandest of light, but at least he has grace enough to laugh at himself: “…people like Phil—inoffensive, with few distinguishing characteristics and a name resonant with normality. The perfect name, in fact. Phil in the blanks. Once I put it to a Phil—not this Phil—that he had a default name, the name a child is left with after all the other names have been given out. He didn’t take it well and retorted that the same could be said of my name, Neil. There was some truth to that.”
Neil is no kinder in depicting the conferences he attends. In the present case he’s at Meetex, a conference for conference organizers (an expo expo!) at a place called—what else?—the Meta-center. He describes trade shows as “Boring hotels, boring breakfasts, boring people, boring fucks, boring fairs.” He calls them—again with that imaginative prose— “Intervals of misrule… At their worst they resembled the procreative frenzies of repressed aquatic creatures blessed with only one burst of heat per lifetime, seething with promiscuity and pursuit.” Neil also reports the following clever minutia about the post-heat departure for those who attend: “Bleary-eyed, the attendees sat quietly on their planes and trains home, and opened their wallets not to buy more drinks, order oysters on room service or pay for another private dance, but to turn around the photos of their kids so they once again face outward.”
Say what you will about the well-worn path of narrative ennui toward one’s profession, Wiles’ canvas is filled with dramatic color and finely-tuned detail, with a special eye for falseness and duplication. In fact, his narrator doesn’t despise his job. To the contrary, Neil takes great pleasure in living amid the pampered delight and easy cleanliness of the conference-set business hotel. He loves what he does because it is a conquest over a scrimping childhood. Wiles sketches this backstory with merciful sparseness yet depth enough to make us care about the past that made him who he is— mother v. father in a tight-budgeted upbringing. The world of Neil’s past is woven inextricably into his present: “Expenses—another word freighted with adult mystery. Expenses, I knew, meant something for nothing, treats without consequences, the realm of my father; a sharp contrast to the world of home, which was all consequences.”
Not far from the mid-point, the narrative shifts to the surreal, tracking more closely to a Paul Auster nightmare. The nightmare form increases, worsens dramatically, growing to consume the novel’s original, more realistic form, in its entirety. In this way, the structure of The Way Inn mirrors the setting itself. A hotel—an unspecified Way Inn branch outside an unnamed city in some unnamed part of the world—that presents itself as one thing, and soon becomes another.
The bottom drops out for Neil when he explains his role as conference surrogate—“to be there, so you don’t have to”—to Laing, the man behind the Meetex conference. In other words, the man with most to lose from Neil’s ambiguously treacherous profession. He’s banned from the conference for a breach of “terms and conditions”, though even in that we find levity: When Neil demands from Laing an explanation for having been “voided”, Laing replies, “We’ll find something… It’s all boilerplate legal stuff, there’ll be something that means what we want it to mean: inappropriate conduct, activities contrary to our commercial interests, abuse of intellectual property…to be honest with you, I haven’t read them.”
All that follows grows increasingly sinister. The novel, like the hotel, shifts its shape and marches toward eternity. No longer is Neil the Hunter—of one-night stands with forgettable women, of the red-headed Dee, of conference data for unknown clients—he has become the hunted. It’s no conceit to imagine The Way Inn on the silver screen, and when his nemesis storms the hallway after Neil, bellowing the word “Housekeeping!”—“feedback whine stripping the humanity from his consonants”—one can easily picture Jack Nicholson, axe in hand, grinning through a battered door in The Shining to declare, “Honey, I’m home”.
If you don’t attend trade shows for a living, you should read The Way Inn for a glimpse of the nightmare you’re missing. If you do attend trade shows for a living, you should read The Way Inn as a wake-up call from your nightmare. Reading this book felt like being caught inside a Rubik’s Cube in the hands of demons hell bent on destruction.
The Way Inn
By Will Wiles
HarperCollins, September 16, 2014 (released in U.K. in June)
Reviewed by Ben East (www.benonbooks.com)