Sunday, 18 January 2009

Dead Air by Iain Banks

Dead Air was published in 2003. I got excited about it, even though I had detected a falling off in Bank's output prior to that. Whit, The Crow Road and (as Iain M. Banks) the increasingly vapid sci-fi of Against A Dark Background, Look To Windward, Feersum Endjinn ... So Dead Air might not mark the exact point where Banks went bad (doesn't that trip nicely off the tongue?) but it is so remarkably bad that it deserves special mention - though it is hard to know where to start.

With that in mind, it makes sense to start at the beginning - right at the beginning, I mean, with the blurb:

A couple of ice cubes, first, then the apple that really started it all. A loft apartment in London's East End; cool but doomed, demolition and redevelopment slated for the following week. Ken Nott, devoutly contrarian leftish shock-jock attending a mid-week weddng lunch, starts dropping stuff off the roof towards the deserted car park a hundred feet below. Other guests join in and soon half the contents of the flat are following the fruit towards the pitted tarmac ... just as mobiles start to ring, and the apartments remaining TV is turned on, because apparently a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Centre ...
Sounds good, doesn't it? It sounds pretty intriguing, in fact - decadence and disaster, the high of petty wilful destruction supplanted by horror in the face of wilful destruction on a grand scale. Well folks, this is about as good as it gets, and to be frank I already have problems. Yes, with the blurb.

The apple, for example. Is it mere coincidence, or is the apple (which ends up splattered) ment to symbolise, in some cool and metaphorical way, the splattering of New York, the BIG APPLE. Maybe I'm trying too hard here?

But there's more - what about our characters name: Ken Nott. In Scotland, 'ken' is slang for 'know.' 'Nott' = 'naught' = 'nothing.' So we have a character called 'Knows Nothing.' Banks, it seems, has decided to yoke 11th of September, 2001 up with that stalest of literary conceits, The Voyage Of Self Discovery. Next week: Nick Hornby uses the genocide in Rwanada to illustrate how one man comes to terms with his divorce.

I don't have aproblem with his use of 11th of September, 2001, as the starting point of a novel. I don't expect that day to be pondered and discussed on sit-coms, but if you are writing a serious novel then it is okay to approach the big and terrible subjects. In fact, it is an obligation, especially if you're one of Britain's most ferocious novelists, intent on laying into the orthodoxy that it is okay to annihilate people as long as they are Arabs, and that Dubya is the defender of civilisation, then you might as well start at Ground Zero.

This isn't what Banks does, however. I was expecting something dark and terrible, exposing the hypocrisy of our leaders and our casual disregard for human lives other than our own - something akin to Complicity (an earlier novel by Banks that I still maintain is good), maybe featuring rightwing conspiracy, anthrax, asylum seekers and the realisation why all these civil rights curtailed after the 11th of September 2001 were important in the first place. I hoped for RAGE – if the horror 11th of September, 2001, and all that has followed it, can't jolt Banks out of his lethargy, what can?

But we don't get any of this.

What we get is the uninteresting life (social and sexual) of Ken Nott. He hangs around with black people (who have comedy accents) so we ken Ken is cool. He has sex with many people, far more than his apparent charms would merit. Must be that irresistible Scottish accent ... Banks can't be arsed with a proper plot, so instead he throws together three different strands, hoping this will generate some sort of narrative suspense, so that when bad things start happening we are meant to be on tenterhooks, waiting to find out who is behind it all.

So, plotless. Poorly written as well. When he can be bothered, Banks can write prose that seems to have a physical impact. Complicity, a similarly badly plotted, clunky thriller, was partially redeemed by the sheer fury that Banks vented through its pages. In Dead Air, the prose is just flabby and dull. There are two big scenes towards the end that are meant to thrill, but it is very hard to feel bothered. Banks rambles, he ambles. He can't resist making chortlesome asides and wry comments that drain any tension that describing someone in mortal danger might have had. He even has the cheek to steal from his own earlier books: he takes time out from his narrative to explain that the process of holding onto the edge of a wall and lowering yourself to the full extent of your arms before letting go is called 'dreeping' in colloquial Scots - very informative, but he had imparted the same information in Espedair Street. Likewise, he describes the 'Not Proven' verdict, unique to Scottish Law, in almost exactly the same manner as in Whit.

Credit where credit's due, however. Once, just once, Banks shows us a bit of the old magic. To save anyone else the chore of sifting through the whole book for it dross, I reproduce the offending material here. I expect it to be excised from future editions, leaving us with absolutely unmitigated crap:

... there was a reliable-sources statistic that Phil discovered the other day; that every twenty-four hours about thirty-four thousand children die in the world from the effects of poverty; from malnutrition and disease, basically. Thirty-four thousand, from a world, from a world-society, that could feed and clothe and treat them all, with a workably different allocation of resources. Meanwhile, the latest estimate is that two thousand eight hundred people died in the twin towers, so its like that image, that ghastly grey-billowing, double-barrelled fall, repeated twelve times every single fucking day; twenty-four towers, one per hour, throughout each day and night. Full of children.

And that's it. That really is it.

All of which has lead me to speculate: is Banks up to something? At times the book is so awful that I think it has to be deliberate. In some mad, incomprehensible way, is Banks actually trying to insult his readers, and the sentimentality and veneration already built up around 11th of September, 2001. Is he teach a lesson to those how bought the book because of the shiver of horror that date inspires, trying to punish them for their unseemly interest in the catastrophe?

Or following the logic of his diatribe, above, is 11th of September, 2001 only worth a crap book, whereas the 34,000 children might be worth something better? Is Banks really that spectacularly bonkers? It is tasteless to use the 11th of September, 2001 to give you shitty book an air of gravitas and urgency. How much more so how much more so to make your book deliberately shitty and irrelevant, to confound the reader's ghoulish interest in the tragedy?

If Banks is trying some sort of moral conjuring here, then he fails, managing to do a disservice to both the victims of 11th of September, 2001 and the thousands upon thousands who die everyday through our indifference. But surely, he isn't trying to do that. I must be mad to even think it. Please someone, tell me I am mad.

1 - This was written in 2003, a few months after the publication of Dead Air. It reappears here because it's original interweb home has ceased to exist.
2 - Dead Air, by Iain Banks, published byLittle Brown, 2002.

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