infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Dead Air

by Iain Banks

(Little Brown, £16.99, 416 pages, hardcover, September 2002.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

There's no question that Iain Banks is a talented writer. He's also very prolific, cover scanand since his first novel, the 1984 punky gothic masterpiece The Wasp Factory, he has released 18 novels in an astonishing variety of genres, including Kafkaesque allegories, thrillers, space operas, family sagas, and more.

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.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)