Friday, January 29, 2010

The Steep Approach to Garbadale

I've read all of Iain Banks' books, pretty much in the order he wrote them, starting with The Wasp Factory in 1988. The Bridge is one of my favourite books ever, one that I re-read on a regular basis, and his run of non-SF novels from The Wasp Factory to Complicity is arguably unmatched in British literature. I agree with him on most of his political views, am interested in all the same things and recognise much of what he writes about from my own background and experiences. Listening to him talk it is clear that he is erudite and fantastically entertaining (just listen to him discuss Transition with Ramona Koval on Radio National's The Book Show to see what I mean).

In short, he is a bit of genius and someone I admire greatly.

Unfortunately, and you knew there was a qualifier coming, his last four (non-SF) novels haven't been very good. So over the last 14 years I have gone from keenly awaiting each new release to mild interest whenever the latest title appears. After Dead Air I even sort-of-assumed that I might be finished with his regular fiction and considered starting into his SF works. I read some mildly positive reviews of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, but even then had no inclination to pick up a copy and probably wouldn't have been tempted apart from the fact that the excellent Fullers Bookshop in Hobart was selling the hardback for five dollars.

The characters are almost all caricatures (the poncey business exec with his Mercedes S-class and Zero Halliburton aluminium briefcase anyone?), mouthpieces for Banks' views on society and politics, so unconvincing they would have trouble standing up in a Jackie Collins novel.

Even more annoyingly there are enough flashes of his best writing to remind you what you're missing. The passages recounting the hero's teenage years are beautifully written, with a real feel for the miseries and joy of that age. Sadly, these sections only remind me of similar ones in his earlier and better books.

One of the better characters seems to be speaking directly to the author rather than the protagonist when she asks: 'What are you trying to achieve? What is it you really want?' In Banks' case unfortunately it looks like he has lost track of the former and found the answer to the latter so long ago that he can't really be arsed anymore.

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