What’s It About
A creepy and dark novel about reality bending motels and business conferences.
The “conference surrogate” is probably the greatest idea ever invented in all of literature. (Hyperbole intended!!!!)
“I meant,” I said, “why are you here at the conference? Aren’t there places you would rather be? Back at the office, getting things done? At home with your family?”
“Aha,” Tom said. “I see where you’re going.”
“Conferences and trade fairs are hugely costly,” I said. “Tickets can cost more than two hundred pounds, and on top of that you’ve got travel and hotel expenses, and up to a week of your valuable time. And for what? When businesses have to watch every penny, is that really an appropriate use of your resources?”
“They can be very useful.”
“Absolutely. But can you honestly say you enjoy them? The flights, the buses, the queues, the crowds, the bad food, the dull hotels?”
Tom didn’t answer. His expression was curious—not interested so much as appraising. I had an unsettling feeling that I had seen him before.
I continued. “What if there was a way of getting the useful parts of a conference—the vitamins, the nutritious tidbits of information that justify the whole experience—and stripping out all the bloat and the boredom?”
“Yes. That’s what my company does.”
Should I Read It?
Most definitely yes. The first half of the novel is stronger than the second half, but this is still a very good, and at times, very creepy book about a chain of motels that are far more than what they seem. In addition, Wiles satirical approach to trade fairs – seriously the conference surrogate is a brilliant and entirely cynical idea – is both true and funny.
You should also check out Nina Allan’s excellent review of the novel on Strange Horizons.
Science Fiction conventions aside, I’ve been to my fair share of industry conferences. The one’s I’ve attended have generally been held in Melbourne and so I haven’t needed accommodation. But on the rare occasion I’ve had to travel interstate, I’ve found staying in a barely adequate hotel – the public service doesn’t shell out for five-star comfort – coupled with attending a conference that could redefine our very understanding of boredom, as a less than satisfactory experience.
Which is why the first half of The Way Inn resonated with me, especially Wiles description of the conference scene as an abattoir and the attendees sheep heading for the slaughter.
Ahead of us, and already around us, were the exhibitors, in their hundreds, waiting for all those eyes and credentials and job titles to sluice past them. There is the expectant first-day sense that business must be transacted, contacts must be forged, advantages must be gleaned, trends must be identified, value must be added, the whole enterprise must be made worthwhile. Everyone is at the point where investment has ceased and the benefits must accrue. A shared hunger, now within reach of the means of fulfillment. Like religion, but better; provable, practical, purposeful, profitable.
Neil Double, our slightly douche protagonist, is aware that this almost religious euphoria, this “shared hunger” ultimately wears off. What remains is just another dull conference where you spend your time sitting through mind numbing panels about OH&S reform and make small talk with people whose names you’ve forgotten but who you vaguely recognise from the last trade conference you attended. It’s this overwhelming sense of ennui that Neil takes advantage of. As a conference surrogate his job is to attend these trade fairs on your behalf, taking copious notes at each panel so you’re provided with the content minus the ratty hotel or getting drunk at another sponsored dinner.
And Neil absolutely loves his job, viewing it as what he was born to do. Part of it comes from the “pervasive anonymity” and the ability to “float in that world [of trade conferences] unidentified working to my own agenda,” but mostly it’s the hotel experience that provides true job satisfaction. Specifically, Neil’s love for hotels and motels stem from:
their discretion, their solicitude, their sense of insulation and isolation. The global hotel chains are the archipelago I call home. People say that they are lonely places, but for me that simply means that they are places where my needs only are important, and that my comfort is the highest achievement our technological civilization can aspire to.
It’s this very bubble of comfort and anonymity that’s about to be popped. First off, one of the organisers of the trade fair Neil is attending tricks him into revealing what he does for a living and then calls Neil out during a panel presentation. Following this embarrassing moment, Neil is no longer allowed to attend the conference. So not only is he no longer anonymous, but he can’t do his job.
And second off the Way Inn starts to turn on him. Most of this is wrapped up in Neil’s reunion with a woman who he last saw at a Way Inn motel in Qatar. The thing is… well I’ll let Neil explain what happened:
She walked in and… Well, she wasn’t wearing anything. She just stood there, completely naked, eyes wide, like she was standing to attention. She didn’t say a word at first, but within about ten or twenty seconds everyone in that lobby was looking at her. Total silence. I have never heard anything like it. And then the staff at the front desk went crazy. They started shouting at her, running about, trying to find something to cover her up. Obviously Qatar’s an Islamic country, very conservative—I mean, there would have been a commotion anywhere.
Neil second meeting with this woman, the night before the conference, involves a strange conversation about the banal art that adorns the walls of the Way Inn. Neil spends the first quarter of the novel hoping he’ll bump into her again, but it’s only when he’s kicked out of the conference that he finds himself caught up in the woman’s ongoing battle with the management of the Way Inn.
Dee, for that is her name, is a great character. Neil objectifies her from the get go, describing “her Amazonian height, and her pale skin and red hair” as “not quite match[ing] up to reality, as if she was too high-definition.” But what I enjoyed is how Dee constantly reminds Neil that their partnership is not going to end in sex.
The look on her face was grim. “Do you remember our little talk? About fucking? About how it’s not going to happen?”
“That is not where this is going. My problems”—she widened her eyes at the thought of those problems, and I wondered what they could be—“are not going to be solved by your penis. Just back off.”
I also liked how Dee is the one who know’s exactly what’s going on with the Way Inn, who understands the dangers posed by the hotel management. It’s Neil own insecurities and weaknesses that ends up getting them both into trouble.
And what trouble would that be? Well, through Dee we discover that the Way Inn – or the entity controlling it – has a found a way of using motels as a means to extrude and impress itself on our reality. So each motel in the chain forms a network, a body that’s constantly growing as each new Way Inn is built. This is a fantastic idea and at least for the first two thirds of the book Wiles makes the most of it by having Neil note small changes in geography, rooms and corridors reconfiguring, and even travelling with Dee between different nodes – moving from one Way Inn to the next.
It’s a shame, then, that Wiles feels a need to introduce a villain about halfway through the book. Having now finished the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer I know that the creepy and scary can be maintained without the need for a meglomaniac with an evil plan. And yet, as noted above, Dee is battling against the hotel management, personified by Hilbert. He reads like a character who’s walked directly out of a Stephen King novel – I’m thinking Leland Gaunt in Needful Things or even Randall Flagg from The Stand – a Faustian figure who is well spoken and erudite and yet doesn’t entirely fit into his own skin. He’s pithy and dangerous and predictable. As a result the last third of the novel goes from creepy hotel reconfiguring reality to a dull and predictable battle between Neil, Dee and Hilbert whose over the top villainy sucks all the scares out of the novel.
Still, while the last third might be disappointing, it didn’t entirely undermine my enjoyment of the book. That first half in particular is both laugh out loud funny – there’s a love note to the hotel shower that had me in tears – and genuinely unsettling as the true nature of the Way Inn begins to reveal itself to Neil. If I wasn’t spending the next who knows how long reading award shortlists then Wiles would be an author I’d be actively following.