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Bridge Builder – Scottish Review of Books
by Douglas Gifford

Bridge Builder

October 26, 2009 | by Douglas Gifford

IT’S ALMOST QUARTER of a century since The Wasp Factory brought to attention Iain Banks. Since then, he has produced eleven novels and the non-fiction whisky-and-personal reflection odyssey, Raw Spirits, while working under the Iain M Banks moniker he has written nine science-fiction novels as well as a collection of short stories. His latest novel as Iain Banks, The Steep Approach To Garbadale has been criticised as something of a rewrite of The Crow Road, his West of Scotland family epic of 1992. Fair comment? The question prompts a reassessment of arguably the most diverse and unpredictable of contemporary Scottish novelists.

Assessment must take account of the Banks/M Banks division. Banks wrote at least three of his sci-fi novels (Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, and The Player of Games) in the later Seventies, before his first published novel, The Wasp Factory. Primarily he saw himself as working in the science fiction genre – but he had to rework these and wait for more than ten years before they were published by Orbit. The science-fiction novels are premised on the idea of The Culture, the loose federation of human and post-human planets which has gradually (in the manner of Fukuyama’s End of History thesis) absorbed or defeated discordant Other cultures.

For all its galactic hugeness and apparent liberality, Banks presents The Culture in ways comparable to his treatment of contemporary human family and society – with resigned acceptance as the best available show now or in the future. The sci-fi novels are dark, with their world-weary spies, players of games and shape/gender changers who have lived through too many incarnations and inversions. It’s hard to identify the moral high ground, as The Culture often resembles a huge extrapolation of our present tepid western liberalism, so often self-deceiving in its motives and justifications. Where these novels transcend the usual limitations of space-opera, however, is their enormity of scale, in imagination and in the mind-boggling size of their structures. Humans build planets, ‘orbitals’, which conform to no galactic patterns, often as rotating wheels, or as colossal planes. But for all the possibilities of reincarnation through mind-transference, many of the enduring protagonists end by withdrawing from The Culture, or accepting a final death through a kind of existential fatigue.

While the addition of an M indicates a distinction between classic space epic and realistic fiction, it’s misleading. Instead of a division between two kinds of fiction, they in fact form part of the same spectrum. At its midpoint, we discover The Bridge is literally that, the crossover point, its epic wars pulling in the direction of science fiction, but its narrative, which explains events as dreams, pulls the novel back towards a psychological plausibility that explains it in understandable, everyday terms. Banks’ fiction frequently repeats this move from social realism towards the bizarre and surreal. Readers may remember the exploding grandmother in The Crow Road, or a girl sailing in a lorry inner tube down the river Forth in Whit, the Kafka-like vagueness of setting in the Song of Stone or the hyperbolically grotesque elements of The Wasp Factory.

Re-reading The Wasp Factory, it’s obvious that Banks made this novel about a girl who believes she’s a castrated boy an exercise in comic macabre, with horrors so wild that the effect is intentionally over the top. But already Banks showed, in his tricks with genre and gender, what would be the hallmarks of future fiction. More ambitious still, Walking on Glass tried to fuse Kafka and Mervyn Peake-derived fantasy with social realism. Its three interlinked worlds continually suggest that the character Quiss, trapped in a Kafkaesque castle of books and riddles, is a projection of paranoid Stephen Grout, trapped amongst books in his seedy London bed-sit. With the added suggestion that both are manipulations of sub-world controllers the reader begins to feel that too many games are being played.

The novel which followed in 1986, however, which Banks supposes to be his best work, perhaps recognised these dangers in its superbly controlled dualism. The Bridge pays explicit homage to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. Like Lanark it presents a protagonist in nightmare, caught in an institutionalised system which grows increasingly dark, with ferocious satire against structures of class and power. Like Lanark, it is a difficult novel in its complex intermingling of nightmare and reality, but Banks can equal Gray’s authorial control.

Alexander Lennox has reached the crossroads (or bridge) in his life. An upwardly mobile originally working-class exile from the West of Scotland now based in upper-class Edinburgh, he has not yet realised the price he has had to pay for his transition in terms of self-betrayal. When the woman he loves, strong-willed upper-class Andrea Cramond, leaves for Paris to stay with his ill rival Gustav, as a rationalist Alex doesn’t protest – but he has come adrift in his world of money, cars, and other women. Are we then to read his crash on the Forth Road Bridge as an intentional accident? He wakes in a hospital, like Lanark, with a new identity and amnesia, in a new world, a great bridge society, which is, of course a nightmare re-assembly of his own, since in reality he is indeed in hospital. The bridge is stupendously envisaged by Banks as two-thousand foot high structure, packed with hundreds of layers of buildings and thoroughfares, a bridge running in endless repetitions for thousands of miles in either direction. All the amnesiac can discover is that the Kingdom (of Fife?) and the City (of Edinburgh?) lie in each opposing direction. It is thus a novel of dreams, as the comatose Lennox first hides from the world he doesn’t want to know. But there are dreams within dreams, and later the deeper nightmares arise from his subconscious mind dragging him back to reality – through dreams of an atavistic barbarian (his West-of Scotland roughness?) on a quest for the Sleeping Byooty (Lennox in hospital bed?). The way back is spectacular, as he rides the endless railway, and becomes a victim of war – but Banks holds his two worlds together with virtuoso skill, and the ending, while open, is implicitly redemptive.

What Banks suggests, as so often with his protagonists at the end of their novels, is that they stand on a threshold in a new Scotland, signifiers of changing times. Lanark and The Bridge mark a move towards cautious optimism in Scottish fiction. Their themes of emergence from trauma influenced others, such as Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing and AL Kennedy’s Looking for the Possible Dance.

By now, under various guises, a central theme for Banks had emerged, that of entrapment, whether through the protagonist’s own weakness or through the game-playing manipulations of others. In Espedair Street, Danny Weir, a traumatised and guilt-ridden Paisley rock star, is hiding out in a huge disused Glasgow church. As with The Bridge, the novel is redemptive; Danny will return to Paisley to rediscover community and love. Realism seems to prevail – although, as always in even the most naturalistic of Banks fiction, the grotesque and other-worldly creeps in: Danny is a somewhat grotesque giant, his friend has an alcoholic dog, and his Gothic retreat has Russian bulldozers in its crypt, given in lieu of payment for past gigs.

In Canal Dreams, Banks chose as his setting the Panama canal and as his improbable heroine a Japanese cellist in her forties who exacts ferocious revenge on hijackers. Boundaries between science-fiction, fantasy and grim modern reality are once again blurred, but the theme of breaking the trap and controlling the game (in this case very bloody) is still there, as it is in Complicity, with its echoes of older Scottish doppelganger fiction. Cameron Colley is a cynical, apathetic, computer game obsessed, drug-taking journalist. His double is his friend Andy, self-appointed judge and executioner, who lets Andy become prime suspect; Cameron is trapped both by Andy’s plotting and his own weaknesses of apathy and loyalty. And in Dead Air similarly a self-indulgent media-obsessed London-Scot Ken Nott sets up his own entrapment by a crime boss through drunken weakness. Set against the events of 9/11, once again personal failings are set against a backcloth of materialism and international political games.

What comes over strongly is Banks’ disgust at the western world of the Eighties. He has been attacked for what some critics see as his glib use of rock music, media games, and cars but the criticism fails to recognise that these are the tropes and currency of post-modernity, and Banks sets them up not just to represent the worlds we live in, but to show their limitations. The protagonists of The Bridge and Complicity will come to recognise the shoddiness of much of their free-wheeling lifestyles.

A Song of Stone

stands as Banks’ ultimate statement of this disgust. In an unnamed post-apocalyptic land ravaged by roaming soldier-gangs, The Castle stands as a place of (decadent) civilisation, with Abel and his lover-sister as its laconic and self-indulgent rulers. Expectations of Abel becoming hero are slowly and systematically destroyed, as he muses, Hamlet-style, in passages which reflect on the contrast between natural beauty and fallen humanity, but ends in Richard II-like apathy. This horrific novel has nevertheless a dark poetry of violence, and implicitly cries out against what was happening in the real world in the late Nineties in Bosnia and Kosovo.

I’ve left discussion of The Crow Road till now, along with The Steep Approach to Gar-badale, since these two novels reveal Banks’ preoccupation with family and the support or betrayal of family loyalties. They both feature a protagonist who finds skeletons lodging in the family cupboards – and in doing so rediscover their self in relation to family, nation, and personal values. In The Crow Road, Fergus McHoan, comes from a Banks-invented Oban-sized town placed in what is in fact Knapdale wilderness; a railway line is invented to connect it with Glasgow; teasing near-identifications with real places and events, imply that the book is about reimagining Scotland. The protagonist Fergus has to lose his father and his uncle Rory and to reshape his conceptions of family, friends and much of life itself, before – in a spectacularly Banksian fusion of reality and fantasy at the end, which involves driving a Rolls Royce off Lewis cliffs into the Atlantic – he, like Banks’ other Scottish protagonists, can stand ready to face his new Scotland.

In Garbadale, Alban McGill, disillusioned ex-company secretary of his family’s huge international computer game company, is pulled back into issues of blood loyalties as the family meet in their Highland estate at Garbadale to decide whether to sell out to American multi-nationals or to preserve the family tradition. In both novels the extended family is dominated by ancestral voices – grandfathers and grandmothers, together with powerful uncles, cousins; oddly enough, the immediate parents stand aside as gentler, more genuine, less clannish. And in Gar-badale, as in the two others, Alban is seeking the reasons for his birth-mother’s suicide by drowning, and the strange prohibition of his love for cousin Sophie.

Banks remarks in Raw Spirits on the contrast between his own personal family life and those in his fictions, and I don’t seek to make links of that kind. Considering these family novels, however, and the recurrent existential loneliness of so many of his protagonists, one wonders whether Banks works from the same paradoxical position of so many of his characters, who sense the underlying meaningless nature of experience, yet still restlessly seek meaning. Or does a more personal and fundamental questioning of family values lies behind Banks’ lonely men and women? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear; Garbadale is no mere echo of The Crow Road, but in its family explorations, a cousin to it, and a fine tragicomic achievement in itself.

In the end, of course, the question doesn’t matter. For all his questioning of personal and social values, Banks has shown that, unlike many modern Scottish – and modern – writers, he has great respect for what human imagination, together with reason and technology, can achieve. It is the theme of his The Culture series of science-fiction epics, in which creative reason and science are seen as perhaps the only forces which can save us; and in the fiction discussed above, for all its darkness, he allows humanity imagination and hope.

Iain Banks
Little, Brown, £17.99
pp400 ISBN 0316731056

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