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Old 17th Mar 2006, 12:41   #1
John Self
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Default Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

The serendipity of how I came upon this significant new book would no doubt have delighted its author Simon Ings (which sounds more like a gameshow call-and-response than a real name: "I bet he does!"), or at least some of its characters. I bought it after seeing it in Waterstone's, intrigued by the cover, putting it back ("Mozambique... revolutionary...? Nah"), then seeing a cracking review in the Guardian shortly afterwards, whereupon I went back to the shop, picked it up again and didn't let go this time until I got home.



And all this seemed to me vaguely relevant when I read the novel's central conceit, told through the manifesto of a quietly revolutionary society in Bloomsbury in the 1960s:

Quote:
The Society had accreted around the writings of the Polish-born American linguist Alfred Korzybski. In the early 1930s Korzybski had developed a theory of relations that did away with the notion of cause and effect. Korzybski declared that everything exists not because it acts, nor even because it thinks, but because it is already related to everything else. Cause and effect are merely special manifestations of a relation that already exists.

But if everything is connected to everything else, then the dimensions that separate things from each other - the three spatial dimensions that place things at a distance, and a fourth dimension, time, which makes that distance meaningful - these have no absolute reality. They are, in fact, contingent upon this higher relation of universal connectedness.
And if this is starting to make your head hurt, then rest assured that this is as technical as The Weight of Numbers gets (though frankly I wouldn't have minded a bit more of it), and Ings spends his time profitably exploring the kinds of inexplicable connections in which this principle manifests itself. This in itself might be an excuse for a sub-Magnolia romp through the lives of disparate souls, but Ings's dazzling, dizzying technique which jumbles time up along with everything else, makes it more Magnolia-meets-Memento, or if you prefer to keep things literary, Cloud Atlas shredded up with the jigsaw puzzle of B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates.

And so despite shying away from tricky theory and staying with the real and fictional cast Ings has chosen, the book can be hard work. Partly this is because of the need to keep all the characters and their connections in various parts of your mind at once: I never really did manage it entirely, and found myself pleasantly straining to think who did what to whom two hundred pages ago. Partly it is because The Weight of Numbers at times seems to be a ruthlessly whittled version of a much longer book, and Ings has tidied away surplus information, given us just enough to get to know the characters and scenes before moving on. And partly it can be hard work, bleak in a way Richard Yates doesn't come near, because the subject matter is best suited to strong stomachs: read on, but only if you don't mind such grim subject matter as child rape, bloody amputation, chronic anorexia, and Richard Nixon. And while you're at it, put aside any desire for characters you can empathise with (there are a couple, but even they go wrong in the end).

The cast is nonetheless impressively varied: we have Jim Lovell, the Apollo astronaut who never got to land on the moon; Saul Cogan, librarian, lover and people trafficker; Anthony Burden, John Nash-style troubled mathematician (or indeed like that bloke from William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach, which the book reminded me of intermittently. You know: Africa, maths, etc...); Nick Jinks, a man of many names who pops up, Zelig-like, across the century and around the world; Stacey Chavez, former Grange Hill star turned stomach-churning performance artist; and a whole host of other primary and secondary characters who appear and vanish and vanish and appear like lighthouse beams in mist. There are numerous vividly memorable set piece scenes, such as that set in a bombed library during the second world war, or where Stacey and a Grange Hill co-star get up to a bit of behind-the-scenes behind-the-bike-sheds stuff (though Ings chickened out and made her co-star play the fictional character of Biff McBain, when I would really have liked to see Gripper Stebson turning up). For myself, and for all my love of a bit of ice-hearted misanthropy, I could have done with perhaps a few more scenes like the opening one with Jim Lovell and his wife, imparting a sense of mystery and exciting wonder, to make up for those like the one where we discover, horribly, why one chapter is entitled PQRD... And he is not incapable of some impressive phrasemaking ("Furled umbrellas spasmed like jellyfish").

So Simon Ings has written a considerable and significant book, which with its very uncertainty and complexity, demands an early re-read, which I expect it will satisfy even more. As for whether big sales and prize nominations are to be his, I can only hope the weight of numbers is on his side.
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Old 17th Mar 2006, 21:57   #2
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

I found this interesting piece from the Times about the gestation of The Weight of Numbers as a product on our bookshelves. Ignore silly snakes and ladders device...

A book may seem to sail on to the shelves of Waterstone’s with swan-like grace, but the activity beneath the surface is frantic before it is published. The author had to struggle to write it and to find an agent and publisher, and there will also have been heated debates over editing, cover design, publicity and marketing. Even then, there is no guarantee that the book will receive support from booksellers. The birth of every book is fraught with hard bargaining. Hopes can be raised high one moment and dashed to pieces in the next. It is like a game of snakes and ladders: one minute up, the next back to where you started.

Simon Ings’s The Weight of Numbers is an ambitious and complex literary novel that encompasses 80 years of history, a web of narratives and everything from immigration to television wrestling. The independent publisher Atlantic Books took it on and will publish next month what it hopes will be one of the novels of the year. Here we chart its journey to publication.

START 2003
1
Simon Ings, a science journalist, has a theme in his head for a Big Novel. What if all that mattered was not ideology, ethics or morality, but just the sheer weight of numbers? He decides that if he does not write it now, he never will and uses his savings to take a year’s sabbatical. “I knew what I loved and what I wanted to do, but it was very much a punt,” he says.

SHORT LADDER 2004
2
Ings shows his novel to Peter Tallack, a literary agent with Conville and Walsh. Tallack represents only nonfiction, but, as he has asked Ings to write a nonfiction science book, he reads The Weight of Numbers to humour him. He loves it. “It was amazingly tightly plotted and beautifully written,” he recalls. But work is needed on the structure and Ings begins months of rewrites.

SHORT SNAKE February 2005
3
The novel is sent to ten publishers, of varying sizes. One turns it down outright, calling it “pretentious and overwritten”; another likes it but says that it does not fit with their list. Silence.

LONGER LADDER Early March
4
Toby Mundy, managing director of Atlantic Books, passes the manuscript to one of his editors, Louisa Joyner. Joyner cannot put it down. Mundy believes it to have literary-prize potential. He makes a £30,000 offer for the world rights. Tallack and Ings are impressed by Atlantic’s enthusiasm and determination to create a buzz about the book. Rather than wait for a higher offer, they sign a deal that includes US publication by Grove Atlantic.

Mundy uses the London Book Fair to announce the acquisition. Foreign publishers begin to sniff around, encouraged by Atlantic’s reputation for punching above its weight with literary fiction.

MOVE FORWARD ONE April-May
5
Ings and Joyner begin work on the manuscript. The narrative web, historical span and multiple locations demand rigorous fact-checking to iron out contradictions. A map of characters and places is drawn up. One of the characters, Stacey Chavez, is developed farther. Ings struggles when his scrupulous research is questioned. No one believes that people drank Pilsner beer in Britain in the Blitz. It may be true, but is dropped to stop readers being pulled up short by a fact that they may find hard to believe. In fiction, truth is often sacrificed to readability.

SHORT LADDER Summer
6
Ghost Design is commissioned to produce a cover. Ings favours a photograph of a bombed-out library in the Blitz but is overruled by the designer, Chris Shamwana, who says that the idea is not relevant for this “Pynchon-esque” novel. Kerry Roper, an artist, is commissioned to produce a jacket image. Two of her five designs are chosen — a disembodied suit covered in scribbles on a white background for the front cover and hands holding numbers for the back. It looks bold and original and should capture attention in the bookshops.

LONG LADDER September
7
Atlantic’s rights director, Valerie Duff, sends proof copies to literary scouts working for foreign publishers looking for books by British writers. A German publisher, Goldmann, takes the bait, closely followed by HarperCollins Canada and Il Saggiatore in Italy, after a fiercely contested auction. Momentum is building in the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

LONG SNAKE September
8
The booksellers prove resistant. Initial pitches for front-of-store spots fall on deaf ears. If the book fails to win in-store promotions, it could fail, no matter how good it is, because readers will not be able to find it.

SHORT LADDER October
9
In the week before the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s biggest, Atlantic hypes Weight by splashing out £6,500 on the front cover of The Bookseller, the trade’s magazine. This creates a buzz and more foreign publishers make offers, while booksellers in South-East Asia, Australia, Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and the Middle East place sizeable orders. Five months before publication , The Weight of Numbers has earned back its advance and Ings is looking forward to receiving his first royalty cheque.

LONG SNAKE November
10
Atlantic’s publicity director, Karen Duffy, sends proofs to 80 authors and critics in the hope of getting quotes for use on the cover. Laurence Norfolk and David Mitchell both say that they love the book but will not be quoted. As silence ensues, the euphoria of Frankfurt starts to fade. With publication planned for February, quotes are needed urgently to persuade booksellers that Atlantic’s faith in Ings is more than hype.

MEDIUM LADDER December
11 With no cover quotes, publication is delayed until March. Then the Financial Times lists Weight as one of its books of 2006, supplying a much-needed cover quote: “A virtuoso display of imaginative plotting.”
Then James Flint, the author of Habitus, contacts Atlantic publicity office to say that he has been sent a proof by Arena magazine, loves the book and wants to review it for them and for a newspaper. He also offers to pass it to his French publisher, who he thinks will want to publish it. Three newspapers confirm that they plan to run reviews. Magazines are also showing an interest. The buzz is back.

LONG LADDER January 2006
12 On the eve of going to press, the Orange prize-winning novelist Lionel Shriver sends a quote. It is a knockout endorsement that will go on the front cover: “Unerringly well written and engrossing to the last page.” Booksellers start to take notice. Waterstone’s, Borders and Books Etc confirm that they plan to include the book in front-of-store promotions.

MOVE FORWARD ONE February
13
French and Spanish publishers express an interest, as do television companies. Tallack prepares to auction the film and remaining foreign language rights at the London Book Fair in March. Ings’s publicist begins to line up literary festivals. Huddersfield confirms an invitation. But the big festivals — Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh and Cheltenham — have yet to confirm.

SNAKE OR LADDER? March
14
The final pieces are in place for marketing and publicity campaigns. Rights deals are lined up for the London Book Fair and . . . after three years the book reaches the shops. When the first reviews appear, Ings and Atlantic will learn whether they have a bestseller on their hands.

END September to January 2007
15
The crucial time when the Man Booker Prize and Whitbread Prize nominations are announced and the choices for the Richard and Judy Book Club revealed. Atlantic has high hopes, but will The Weight of Numbers be in the running?
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Old 19th Jun 2007, 19:17   #3
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

I have just finished The Weight of Numbers and agree with pretty much every word John Self has said.

The novel follows a number of carefully interleaved stories over sixty or more years as the various characters lives intertwine in ways that would baffle even Dickens. Each of the characters is engaging, and each of the stories is interesting - ranging from child kidnapping; people trafficking; the loneliness of homosexuality during the War; east African civil war - but there doesn't seem to be a common thread to hold them together. There is something missing.

The title, The Weight of Numbers, offers no clues. One of the characters likes maths but there doesn't seem to be much logic to the name. Neither is there a particular logic to the titles of each of the stories - one or two are made obvious but most remain enigmatic.

The writing, though, is beautiful. Simon Ings conjours a perfect sense of time and place, whether the place is Mozambique on a dusty afternoon in the 1980s or middle England in the 1960s. Each word rings with beauty, but the text never seems overblown or stodgy. Most stories are told with perfect clarity, but the difficulty is remembering which of the characters interrelated in previous stories - which may or may not be in the chronological past. The exception to this is the fate of Stacey, the ex-Grange Hill star. Stacey's story is probably the least satisfying, not least because she is too easily confused with Melissa Wilks, who played Samuel Maguire's girlfriend in the real Grange Hill series. Stacey didn't ring true, and her chaotic life seemed to flit across continents rather too easily.

I enjoyed the novel. It was pacey, political, had enough action but with (mostly) excellent characterization and detail. It felt satisfying to read - but the hollowness came as it started to unravel so soon after finishing the work. I'd say there are plenty of books less deserving of our time. There is genius, but I'm afraid it is flawed.
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Old 20th Jun 2007, 20:17   #4
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

Excellent review, JS. Sounds exactly like the kind of thing I like.
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Old 20th Jun 2007, 20:23   #5
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

Never mind that, Oryx - let's hear those thoughts on Watch Me Disappear that you were promising us a week or so ago!
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Old 20th Jun 2007, 20:28   #6
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

My over-ambitious enthusiasm gets me all the time! I'll try to put some coherant thoughts together later this evening.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 21:44   #7
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

I am about half way through this and am resenting every minutie that I can't spend reading it. What a wonderful can of worms this novel is!

Thanks for the head's up on the multiple characters and story lines, John. I made an especial effort to remember people, places and dates right from the start and so am keeping up fairly well with everyone. I probably will need to skim the first few chapters when I'm done, but fo far, so good!
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Old 10th Jul 2007, 1:54   #8
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

John, I noticed that you didn't rate this in your review and don't have it on your Palimplist. Care to rate this? I'd be very interested in where you'd place it in the star ratings.

Same for you Mr H.

Tx
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Old 10th Jul 2007, 8:03   #9
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

Quote:
Originally Posted by Oryx View Post
John, I noticed that you didn't rate this in your review and don't have it on your Palimplist.
But he does, on his 2006 list - 4 stars.
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Old 10th Jul 2007, 8:37   #10
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Default Re: Simon Ings: The Weight of Numbers

Yes, and I'd stick with that. it is.
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