Tangled web

The Weight of Numbers

Simon Ings <em>Atlantic Books, 422pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1843544636

Simon Ings's sixth novel is noth- ing if not ambitious. Jump-cutting between decades and across continents, it encompasses the moon land- ings, early theories about the internet, internecine conflict in Africa and the Second World War.

The Gordian-knot plot defies description. The novel opens in 1965 at Lake Kissimmee, Florida, where the astronaut Jim Lovell is enjoying dinner with his wife. We then skip forward nearly 30 years to war-torn Mozambique to meet Saul Cogan, a sardonic Englishman who runs a human-trafficking racket, before jumping another six years to Heathrow, where the anorexic actress Stacey Chavez is buckling in to fly to Mozambique to film a short doc about landmines for Comic Relief. In the next section, we track back to the start of the Second World War, when Kathleen, a shy girl with a gift for mathematics, travels to London to contribute to the war effort by number-crunching at Senate House.

The novel plays fast and loose with time, ditching a linear narrative and haphazardly criss-crossing between characters in a manner that recalls the modish style of storytelling in recent films such as Crash. Many of the characters are linked, and out of these connections Ings weaves an ingenious, shimmering web of contiguity and chance. It becomes clear that The Weight of Numbers is a riff on the idea of six degrees of separation.

"Everything is connected to everything else" is the mantra of a Polish-born linguist whose writings one character discovers in the stacks of an arcane society just off Gower Street in central London. This, in a nutshell, is the novel's presiding philosophy, hence the primacy as an image of the worldwide web, with its virtual net cast over the planet.

To demonstrate this across 400 pages is a feat of meticulous plotting. In this respect, Ings's project is not dissimilar from David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, with which it has been compared. Both books are in effect sophisticated collections of short stories, in which the interlinked tales add up to a greater whole.

But where Mitchell successfully mimics the idiosyncratic voices of his characters, Ings does not sufficiently differentiate between his. The diction throughout is strangely mannered, with Ings opting for grandiose language such as "purblind", "purlieus" and "predation". This produces an unfortunate detachment from the characters, and only rarely do we get under their skin.

Perhaps Ings goes for styl-istic uniformity to illustrate his vision of global similarity beneath superficial difference. Even so, the strategy occasionally backfires. It seems unlikely, for instance, that a 14-year-old girl would use the Spenserian archaism "thewed" to describe the muscle-bound, half-naked samurai patterning her mother's kimono.

For every sentence that rings hollow, though, there is one that resonates or hums. I particularly liked the description of the sky above Mozambique as "the strange, marble world of thunderheads and cloud columns", transforming the vaporous architecture of the heavens into something momentarily more substan-tial and fantastic. The section devoted to wartime London is also very strong. The city's eerie, blasted streets, with their "ziggurats of shattered masonry", conjure a sense of crumbling urban dislocation that wouldn't feel out of place in early T S Eliot.

But for all the flashes of poetry and passages that suddenly soar, an infelicitous word or phrase will bump you back to earth. Ings can never stay still, and the overall effect of his skittering novel is frustrating, even aimless. He strains hard to make The Weight of Numbers a symphonic overview of the 20th century, but the restless writing is too patchy to pull this off. Instead, to borrow an image that comes near the start, it skips and hops like a scratched record. Thank goodness, then, that it's often so tuneful.