(Little Brown, £16.99, 416 pages, hardcover, September 2002.)
There's no question that Iain Banks is a talented writer. He's also
very prolific, The Wasp
Factory, he has released 18 novels in an astonishing variety of
genres, including Kafkaesque allegories, thrillers, space operas, family
sagas, and more.
since his first novel, the 1984 punky gothic masterpiece
Unfortunately, I too often get the impression from his novels that
he doesn't put enough sweat and blood into them. Too many of his books
end up reading like exceptionally promising first drafts--but first
drafts nonetheless. He relies overmuch on his obvious skill at weaving
words together and doesn't put enough care into constructing his novels.
I'm reminded of Woody Allen, who now churns out film after film with
little or no attention to quality control.
Iain Banks's new novel is Dead Air, a first-person narrative
from the point of view of Ken Nott, an incendiary radio announcer who
runs afoul of several people for various reasons. There's the gangster
husband of one of Nott's several lovers. There's yet another gangster,
who wants Nott to withdraw his testimony concerning a car accident.
White-supremacist Holocaust deniers might be after him because of how
he tried to humiliate them on television and in court. Israel supporters,
including his ex-wife, aren't happy with him because of his compassion
for the plight of the Palestinians. And on and on it goes....
There's a lot of energy in Dead Air: sexual tension aplenty,
enthusiastic and intense erotic encounters, passionate politics, sudden
violence, and so on. All that is laudable, yet the energy remains unfocused
throughout the novel. There's no real story to tie it all together,
no structure on which to build a narrative.
Dead Air meanders, and it does so excessively. For example,
at one point there's a sequence when Ken and his best pal talk about
soccer for about six pages--and it has nothing to do with what little
story there is and reveals nothing noteworthy about the characters.
It's just blather to fill up pages. And there's too much of that in
the unfortunately aptly titled Dead Air.
At the other extreme, the book is occasionally punctuated by snippets
of dialogue with no narration to contextualize them or reveal who is
talking. This James Cain-like minimalism jars stylistically with the
rest of the book and doesn't reconcile easily with the first-person
narrative. I'm not sure what Banks was trying to accomplish with these
passages, but what he does inadvertently succeed in doing is emphasize
the feeling that Dead Air is an ill-conceived and rushed project.
Every once in a while, something happens that gives the impression,
after pages and pages of meandering blather, that the story finally
gets going, that an event is tying the novel's disparate elements into
a story. In every case, though, it turns out to be a red herring.
It's all too easy to imagine that Nott is a doppelganger for Banks
himself. Too often, he seems like little more than a vehicle for Banks
to mouth off about whatever political issue is irritating him.
While I admit to agreeing with all of Banks's political statements
in Dead Air--and also to believing that such views deserve more
exposure in the face of the monolithic worldview propounded by the corporate
news media--I think that it is regrettable that he couldn't find a way
to better integrate the politics within his story. As things stand,
the diatribes make for poor fiction.
This book's shortcomings are even more obvious when compared to an
earlier Banks book, Complicity. Like Dead Air, Complicity
featured a hip young man with strong political convictions. Unlike Dead
Air, though, the politics fuelled the story and provided the substance
around which Banks concocted a truly clever and ingenious yarn. As such
Complicity stands as one of Banks's best works, while Dead
Air is nothing more than a near miss.
Despite all my talk of Dead Air meandering too much, I confess
to having been often quite entertained by this novel and its sardonic
narrator; but a lot of what kept me reading was the belief that Banks
would pull a rabbit out of a hat and eventually reveal the story that
lurked within this chaotic mess of digressive prose. Alas, the rabbit
remained unpulled, and the ending was extremely frustrating.
Also, while Ken Nott does get subjected to a thorough thrashing at
one point, he ultimately pays no real price and gets all the rewards.
And that is an all-too-common flaw of books in which the protagonist
is really a thin disguise for the author. One expects, perhaps, novice
writers or untalented hacks to fall into this self-indulgent trap of
being overly kind to their fictional alter egos, but it's hard to forgive
such an offense from a writer of Banks's experience and skill.
Originally published in The Gazette, Saturday 18 January 2003.
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