Thursday, September 06, 2007

The philosophy of numbers

(For those keeping score at home, this is my 500th post.)

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain BanksThe Steep Approach to Garbadale, the almost-new book by Iain Banks, is like a comfy old pair of trainers, an effortlessly easy, lively, funny read for the train up to Blackpool. I’m somewhat relieved by this having read some mixed reviews – especially one in Private Eye which seemed to think this effortlessness not only easy but contemptible.

Alban McGill doesn’t want to be found by his family. But cousin Fielding tracks him down because he needs his help at their gran’s 80th birthday. The family’s made its fortune from a board game called Empire!, and the gathering will see a vote on whether or not to sell the game and family name to an American corporation…

The inside flap of the book calls this Banks’s “most compelling novel since The Crow Road” – as if that’s his Scary Monsters, and as if he’s not since produced anything good. It certainly has a lot of similarities to The Crow Road, as the black sheep of a large and eccentric Scottish family falls for the wrong, posh girl, delves into the family history and unearths a terrible secret. Structurally, this new book is perhaps a little stronger – I always felt The Crow Road’s murder mystery was a bit tacked on.

Yet I also spotted the main twist of this one well before halfway, and so found the ending a little anti-climactic. But importantly, like The Crow Road (and the Banks-thieving Dr Who and the Also People), the plot as such is more a distraction from the book’s real brilliance – exploring people’s lives as they meet up, have drinks, fall in love… It’s often at its best, and funniest and most insightful, when you don’t feel anything important is going on. Fielding trying to impress his elderly aunties with PowerPoint, or a night out on too many drugs. VG struggles to explain the philosophy of numbers.

There’s also lots of things that reminded me of other books by Banks. Games are models of morals and society as in Complicity and The Player of Games. Tango’s bad grammar as he narrates parts of the story are a bit like Bascule in Feersum Enjinn. Alban and cousin Haydn in Paris made me think of The State of the Art, while the suicide made me think of Look to Windward. This is not a criticism, rather an acknowledgment that Banks returns to certain themes; it wouldn’t be a criticism of John le Carre to say his new book’s about spies and big money.

Another Banks trait is the effort to get the zeitgeist. There’s mention of Live Aid, 9/11, Iraq and the Boxing Day Tsunami, and a sense of how these things – some experienced first hand, some experienced as news on the telly – affect and change people’s lives. It’s a way of blending the personal experiences of the characters with the broader experiences of the reader, making the characters more real and convincing.

This sort of thing’s at its best when it also shows us something about the characters. Alban split up with a girl over his (initial) support for the Iraq war. But too often there are glib bits of politics that come not from the mouths of the characters but feel like the author ranting.
"The USA, perhaps not surprisingly, proved reluctant to accept Empire!; sales were miserable. Henry tried a version of the game based on a map consisting only of the contiguous states of the US, but that did little better. Finally he bought up a small printing firm in Pittsburgh so that the box and board could each bear the legend Made in the USA, altered the map of the world on which Empire! was based so that the USA was centred – the boundaries of the board cutting through the heart of Asia – renamed the game Liberty!, changed nothing else and watched the dollars roll in."

Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 130.

This is just one example; there’s also a history of the 20th century given in the names of different permutations of the game, and a thing about how being right-wing is a sign of a lack of imagination. This is a shame because it detracts from the richness of detail and character that makes the book so engaging.

In fact, some of Banks’s best work is where he tells a story from a point of view he doesn’t agree with. The utopian Culture of his sci-fi is often seen through the eyes of those it has not won over and – as I argued in my academic paper nearly a decade ago – most of the Culture stories contrast the Culture with other societies, showing aspects that are both better and worse. Complicity, likewise, has a main character who we empathise with yet never like.

This hectoring aside, there’s some great insights throughout the book. I especially liked the line about readers of science fiction not being taken in by sweeping statements like “the end of history”. It’s extremely good at evoking the embarrassment and thrill of first love and naughties, and the pressures and delights of a sprawling great family. For all it is funny and lively, it’s also quite a melancholic book, the potential sale of the family business a symbol of everything else that’s been lost.

I’d been nervous about the book based on other people’s reactions, but The Steep Approach to Garbadale was simply a pleasure to read. And now I am hopping with excitement about the forthcoming Matter.
"Had he said the right thing [...]? He'd tried to say what he felt, what he believed. He'd probably been too political, too self-indulgent, but when else was he going to get a chance to say stuff like that to an audience willing to listen?"

Ibid., p. 357.

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