Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Steep Approach to Iain Banks

It has been noted – mostly by me when I come to answer those ‘who do you like reading?’ questions – that most of the writers whose every word I more or less hang on are women.
Fortunately, one of my friends has more wide-ranging tastes and she is constantly thrusting books under my nose and saying ‘Here, you’ll like this.’ Since one of her aims in life (why?!) is to get me to read more literary fiction, this assurance often fails to ring true. I keep trying to tell her that, in recommending books by the likes of Orhan Pamuk and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she’s on a losing wicket but she’s Croatian so fails to grasp what I’m metaphorically on about. Or at least, she ignores me and continues to sigh theatrically and ‘tsk’ as only the Eastern Europeans can and leave Orange prizewinners lying casually around on our dining room table. She curls a lip at my plaintive cries of ‘when do we get to the story?’, ‘it’s so depressing’ and - my personal favourite ‘but it’s page 63 and I wouldn’t care if all the people in the book were taken out by a man with an AK47…’ and says ‘You went to Oxford, don’t tell me you don’t understand what they mean.’
When I try to assure her that I do know what they mean I just don’t like it she looks at me darkly and mutters something in Croatian about mice and mothers. (Not good I’m assured.)

Anyway, all that is a preamble to saying that I have actually read and enjoyed one of the books she recently intimated that I might not wholly hate. Iain Bank’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale is great. I really liked it. Not only the narrative, which (though I’m sure it’s elsewhere described as a bildungsroman) is basically an extremely long shaggy dog story as we keep going off on two or three temporal tangents as we may metaphorically approach but in reality continually fail to start off towards Garbadale, but also the language and Banks’s style. I’ve decided I’m missing something in not reading more male writers. There’s something profoundly masculine about the way in which Banks constructs narrative prose; his words are frequently strung together with the kind of innocent playfulness which the best kind of men never lose as they grow up. And he can be extremely funny. I laughed out loud a several times and read bits out loud to the Other Half, a sure-fire sign of genuine amusement and appreciation for a well-turned phrase

The fact that I guessed the family secret at the heart of the book way before it was actually revealed did not in any way detract from how much I liked TSATG. It was full of wonderfully observed passages (Alban and Sophie’s teenage love affair is so gut-wrenchingly real you think you are fifteen again) and characters whom you felt you knew deeply after only a page (if there is ever a film of TSATG then David Mitchell must play Alban’s cousin Haydn who, when talking about sex says ‘I find women quite attractive in a theoretical sort of way. They’re smaller, more efficient, better packaged. I just don’t have any overwhelming desire to penetrate them with any part of my own body.’)

In fact my only criticism – more of a query really – is why Iain Banks felt it necessary to have a first person narrator who makes precisely two appearances in role – one on page 5 and the other on page 389 (in a book of 390 pages). This person is Tango and it is his council flat in which Fielding, Alban’s cousin, finds him at the beginning of the book. On the book's last two pages, Tango describes both his own current living arrangements and Alban’s which are rather different. If he is there to show us what a good bloke Alban is, how different he is from the rest of his family, then Iain Banks should have had more faith in himself, because that comes over more than adequately in the rest of the book.

But this is a minor quibble about a book which I enjoyed very much and which will make me go back and read all the Iain Banks back-catalogue. But not Iain M. Banks, the novelist’s sci-fi alter ego. I’m not into sci-fi. I leave that to the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Other Half.

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