Monday, 10 June 2013

dog walking, stillness, a fox, iain banks


I arranged to go into work a bit later this morning because I had to walk our dog. Which makes dog-walking sound like a chore, which it wasn't. Although grey, the light was soft, so that the greens and the colours of the wild flowers were muted but vibrant. The wind has at last dropped too--the air was so still. Just after I took the photo above in the Bampton Millennium wood, we rounded a corner and there was a fox, setting off swift and silent along the track.

Very sad, though, to get home and read of the death of Iain Banks.

Below is a review I wrote for the Times of Banks' 2002 novel, Dead Air. I hope that the piece captures something of Banks' high-energy and eclectic style. Although, as the review suggests, I thought the end of the book less successful than the beginning, I remember the novel very clearly and refer students to it when teaching at Oxford.

Banks' work reveals him to be, amongst so many other things, a terrific technical writer. This novel is a great example of the way that the 'tipping point' works in fiction. The tipping point occurs anywhere between one third and two thirds the way through a novel and is the moment when all the careful work has been done to build up the story and the plot suddenly begins to move inexorably towards its conclusion, sometimes gently at first then gathering speed, or, as in Dead Air, at a helter-skelter pace, and with dizzying twists and turns.

Filling the Silence
The Times, 31 August 2002

DEAD AIR
By Iain Banks
Little, Brown, £16.99, 384pp
ISBN 0 316 86054 9
£13.59

IAIN BANKS's latest novel is a characteristic blend of contradictory elements. A seemingly trivial story of sexual infidelity which tackles serious emotional and political themes. A Buchanesque adventure yarn set in 21st-century London. A babel of phonetic voices whose title, Dead Air, is radio jargon for silence.

The narrator is a Scottish DJ called Ken Nott. Born Ken McNutt, his surnames indicate that he has his finger on the "self-destruct button" and that he is in denial about the way the world is; "a professional contrarian". His personal life is a mess. Ostensibly, he is going out with Jo, a record company publicist, who has an impressive display of "facial metalwork". But there are other women. Above all, there is Celia, a former model from Martinique whom he meets in hotel rooms for clandestine sex. Her husband, a ruthless gangster, would kill both of them if he found out.

Ken's working life is equally precarious. He hosts a shock jock phone-in on Capital Live! during which he rants against "bigotry and stupidity". The targets of his left-wing anger include Moslem fundamentalists and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. He receives regular death threats.

In between girlfriends and work he frequents a variety of pubs with the lads: Phil, his gay producer; Craig, a friend from his Glasgow schooldays; and Ed, a black club DJ from "Sarf Landin".

A surprising feature of the book is that its first half is episodic with limited plot development. This approach works because Banks is adept at drawing us into each new situation while deepening our understanding of his characters. In a comic scene, in which Craig and Ken spend a night in, smoking joints and talking about "fitba" (football), Banks makes us empathise with Ken more than we might have expected.

He appears to be vulnerable, is guilty about having once seduced Craig's wife and shows that he has both insight into his erratic behaviour and a desire to change.

Banks also develops weightier themes such as liberal humanism and its limitations. At one point Celia questions Ken's belief in "objective truth" and his assertion that people have every right to think whatever they wish so long as they do not proselytise.

She counters by saying that he wants "to make everybody think the same way". She adds: "You are a colonialist of the mind."

Given that the book's opening is carefully set up, it is disappointing when the second half proves less successful. The narrative turns into a thriller of the will-he-get-the-girl? sort. Clever use of a subplot ensures that this is initially compelling, but after a while much of the story's energy is attenuated.
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