Iain Banks sprang to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Since then he has gained enormous and popular critical acclaim, both for his mainstream fiction and for his science fiction novels - of which the latest is The Algebraist which he writes under the transparent pseudonym, Iain M. Banks.
He was at the Literature Festival in conversation with Chaz Brenchley, the author of nine thrillers, a major fantasy series (The Books of Outremer), three books for children and hundreds of short stories in a variety of genres.
In the course of this conversation, Chaz Brenchley let slip that he had once - long ago - given an entire public lecture about Iain Banks. A little arm-twisting extracted the information that the place had been the Queen's Hall, Hexham, and the date November 21st, 1996. That was in another century, and naturally if he were to do it again he would do it differently: but he has very generously permitted the text of that talk to be published here unedited.
Never apologise, never explain, they told me, that's the rule; but I'm a rebellious free-living artist, me, I never obey the rules. So: I'm sorry, but I'm going to read this, rather than ad-libbing cheerfully from a cool and casual handful of notes. There are several viable explanations for this, but I think the most convincing is simply a minor crise de foi in the confidence department. While I am I suppose becoming quite accustomed to public speaking, hitherto I've almost always been talking about myself, which is so easy that I can do it extempore. In point of fact, I am to a large extent going to be talking about myself this evening also, only for respectability's sake I've had to cloak that under the guise of speaking about another writer's work; which is something so new to me that like an uncertain musician, I have brought the score with me and I fully intend to rely on it. I know that there is little more boring than having to sit and watch someone read for the best part of an hour, but sooner that, I thought, than have me lose track through the intricate and sometimes baffling maze of my argument, or - worse - forget my jokes. I pray for your indulgence.
And I have at least brought something, some few things, for you to look at. While I would vehemently deny that any picture is worth a thousand words, it is certainly true that sitting and listening goes a lot better if there's something to distract the eye. This will therefore be an illustrated talk, or monovocular gossip, or whatever it actually is. Not with pictures, but with things shall I illustrate; with objets trouvés, or actually with objets donnés, as they were all gifts. They were also all gleaned from my own desk, my working-space, as I don't have access to Iain's; but I think they'll do well to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all writers, which is my fundamental theme tonight.
They are: a blue egg; a multifaceted glittering thing; and a rather sad paperweight. Actually, I suppose technically they're all paperweights, but only one of them is truly sad. We'll come to that last.
Iain Banks: Iain Banks is a rare creature in a media-frantic age, he's a man who justifies all the hype that is generated around him. The word hype actually derives from hypodermic, but it ought to come from hyperbole; almost by definition, it isn't true. In Iain's case, though, it is. He really is a publishing phenomenon. To notch up one extraordinary achievement in this business can be dismissed as freakish, it's often as much a matter of chance and timing as it is of talent; to match it with a second could just about be put down to coincidence, or clever marketing; Iain has done it at least three times now, and never simply by cashing in on what he's done before. Specifically, he published a first novel at the age of thirty that divided the critics absolutely down the middle, that had them either ranting or raving, calling it both the worst and the best novel of the eighties, sick and perverted or else funny and dark and true. That of course was The Wasp Factory, which came out in '84 and became an instant cult classic. He followed that with a couple of idiosyncratic contemporary fantasies which pretty much confirmed his status in the eyes of the literary establishment: he was a campus writer, a man who had found his natural level and his natural audience and could reasonably be expected to stay there. The shock value of his first book had got him noticed; Walking on Glass and The Bridge between them had emphasised what the narrow focus and glittering pyrotechnics of The Wasp Factory tended to obscure, that here was a man with an unfettered imagination: a clever, confident and ambitious writer who wasn't shy about exposing all three of those attributes, who would always be interesting and always taking risks, always ready to leap in an unexpected or fantastic direction.
All of which tended to confirm that he would remain always on the periphery of literature, mainly addressing a student readership, feeding adolescent hungers rather than mature appetites.
His second major achievement was suddenly to establish a second career, as a much-praised and strikingly original science fiction writer. There is of course an inherent adolescent constituent to the genre audience also, and to some extent Banks does gratify that element, with very big spaceships and very smart weaponry making big bangs; but in fact the core of the SF readership is serious, mature and demanding. A number of mainstream writers before and since Iain Banks have endeavoured with more or less conviction to write science fiction - Doris Lessing springs to mind, with an epic five-volume series; and Kingsley Amis, and indeed Martin Amis, and P D James, and others - but while they may have been to some extent applauded by the non-genre critics for their imagination or their courage or even their proselytising intent, bringing culture to the barren lands and the unenlightened natives, I think it's the general perception among the SF community that those books have never really worked within the context of the genre. Their authors have been seen generally as either patronising or ignorant or both - actually, patronisings (the plural noun) is an anagram of piss-ignorant, which can hardly be accidental, surely? - only repeating what had already been done better by writers rooted within the genre. Iain Banks, on the other hand, clearly came to science fiction as a knowledgeable fan, rather than a slumming literatus with Higher Purposes; he was welcomed with open arms, and his books were quickly recognised as a major contribution with their scale and inventiveness, their combination of extravagant adventure and acute intelligence, coupled with the warmth and humanity and diamond-hard perspicacity that informs all of Banks' writing.
His third and in some ways most remarkable achievement has been to develop both strands of his work in tandem, to build a wider readership for each strand with each successive book and finally to draw those readerships together, to cross-fertilise to the point where twelve years on he's shrugged off the negative and inherently limiting aspects of both the cult and the genre labels; every book he writes is a significant bestseller, whichever ostensible audience it's aimed at, and every book is also a significant contribution to the field of British literature.
As to Iain Banks and me, in case this begins to sound like a eulogy to a mate I ought to say that we don't actually know each other at all, though I've spoken to him a few times at public events; but there are identifiable if rather curious links, or at least parallels, between his work and mine - not least that either one of us would have a case for accusing the other of plagiarism, in two separate and very specific instances. I'll come to those later, because again they demonstrate the cross-connectivity of all writing, how we all dip into a common pool.
But first: the blue egg.
Actually it's a glass egg, with a blue swirly thing at its core. But when I hold it in my hand - oh, I should perhaps explain that I intend to use these mementoes Banksii in much the same way that American country singers of a particularly tacky persuasion will sometimes use a deck of cards. You know the sort of thing I mean, muted strings in the background and a gravelly voice talking over the top,
"When I see the ace it reminds me of the A-side of the last record I made. The deuce makes me wonder what the deuce my manager is thinking of, setting me up to do this song; and the trey just brings to mind the tray of drinks it's going to need to get me through it."Yes? Just like that, these little toys of mine are aides-memoires, signifiers perhaps of something greater.
When I hold the blue egg in my hand and think about its general egginess, it reminds me of Gulliver's Travels and the Lilliputian wars, the Little-Enders versus the Big-Enders; and sometimes this makes me think about the two sides of Iain Banks' writing, the mainstream versus the science fiction. And I think about how some critics really do see that as an irresolvable conflict, or as evidence that he isn't a truly serious writer, because nobody who plays around with the nonsense of spaceships and intergalactic wars can possibly have anything meaningful to say about the human condition; but then I roll it between my palms and feel the weight of it and think about the fundamental solidity, the extraordinary unity of shape and purpose that an egg possesses, and I think that the thing itself refutes all those critics: that it takes two halves to make a whole, and that each side to Banks' work informs and supports the other to such an extent that they are inseparably bound together.
And then I lift the egg to my eye and peer through it, from each end consecutively: and from the big end the swirl of blue looks like nothing so much as a spiral galaxy contained within a shell, to remind me of the immensity of Iain's imagination on whatever scale he's playing at the time, whether it's the vastness of space or the claustrophobia of a disturbed teenager on a tiny Scottish island; and from the little end I can see all the way through it, which reminds me of his acuity in seeing all the way into a human soul, again in whichever form he's working.
And then perhaps I'll look again at the big end, and think of galaxies; and then perhaps I'll think about luck, and how crucial a role that can play in publishing success. I said before that achievement in this business can be as much a matter of chance or timing as of talent; put that another way, say that like Napoleon's generals, you simply have to be lucky. And I do profoundly believe that Iain was extraordinarily lucky even before he sold The Wasp Factory. Point being, that was not the first book he actually wrote. He'd spent most of his twenties writing and touting around early versions of his first three science fiction novels, without any success at all in finding a publisher for them.
Why is this lucky? Because while it is, as I have said, a remarkable achievement to overcome the snobbery of the literary establishment by moving from mainstream into SF without thereby debasing the recognition you've already earned, to do the thing the other way around, to start in science fiction and move into mainstream, is well-nigh impossible. Others have tried it - people like Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Geoff Ryman - and they've all found it incredibly difficult to achieve any significant readership beyond the genre, to make that breakthrough into general acceptance. Aldiss had the most success, perhaps, but he was doing this in the sixties and seventies, when boundaries were less well defined, publishers were less prescriptive and people were more willing to experiment. Come the eighties, Moorcock could write a wonderful novel entirely about London and still not find an audience for it outside his long-established fan base.
Nothing of course is certain, particularly in publishing; but it seems to me highly likely that had Iain published a couple of science fiction novels first, his mainstream work would never have made it into the bookshops. As soon as he expressed an ambition to write something different his editor I think would have stamped on it, "No, no, stick to what you're good at, what you're known for; if you wrote a straight book we'd never be able to sell it." It might perhaps not have been said straight, but the underlying thought would have been, "Publishing within a genre carries a stigma with it, that you'll never shake off now. Clowns don't get to play Hamlet, that's one of the rules..."
It's possible actually that his publishers were disappointed in any case, with what he chose to write after The Wasp Factory. Being the mean-spirited and unimaginative creatures they often are, they may well have been hoping for something equally nasty, to keep the controversy going and cash in on the notoriety of that book. What they got instead was Walking on Glass followed by The Bridge, both of which sought to combine visions of eighties street-life with visions of the bizarre, the surreal, great architectural edifices that owe more to Gormenghast than to Edinburgh Castle. These books are clever, intelligent, intriguing, funny, sad, perceptive, beautifully written - and yet, and yet. There is writing to admire, and writing to enjoy; I admire these books enormously, but I remember not actually enjoying them much first time around, and I think it's significant that they were the only two I'd not gone back to reread before I began preparing for this evening. Call me an old dullard, but I do prefer a reasonably straightforward narrative structure in a novel. I'm as suspicious of exotic structures as I am of stories with a violent twist in the tail: which can work, which have worked, Iain Banks has made them work and so I think have I, but I'm usually left with an uncomfortable feeling at the end that the whole point of the story has been the twist, and the whole point of the twist is to demonstrate how clever the author is, how they've put one over on you the reader. Similarly, you take a book like Walking on Glass which has three different narrative strands, characters who clearly live in three totally dissociated worlds and whose activities cannot possibly interlink; and no matter how attractive the writing or how persuasive the characters in each strand, all the time you just know that what awaits you in the end is the equivalent of the detective calling all the suspects together in the library and then unmasking the culprit, gosh wow. Somehow all these disparate threads have to be pulled together, or there is no book; and when they are there's an inevitable sense of a fanfare, of the author standing up to take a bow; and I always feel cheated, because that's not enough, cleverness like patriotism is never enough, a book should be impelled by some greater urgency than that.
Or maybe it's just that I'm lazy, because these are not actually easy books to read or get a handle on; certainly Banks is on record as saying that The Bridge is his own personal favourite. But then again, no writer is a reliable or even a convincing judge of their own work; any more than is any individual critic or reviewer, or the public at large. I can't say for sure, it was a long time ago, but I'd hazard a guess that when they came out, these books were nothing like as popular as The Wasp Factory; though of course popular appeal is no criterion by which to judge a book's worth. Neither, of course, is the utterly subjective opinion of another writer who just happens to be giving a talk on a colleague's work. I suppose in the end you just have to fall back on a collective, the overall response of all these different readerships; it's either that or look to posterity, see what survives and what does not. Even that, though, seems to me to be unreliable, when you consider the number of neglected or temporarily-rediscovered masterpieces which are never going to be fully accepted within the corpus of what is taught as literature. Guessing again, I'd certainly conjecture that Banks' work as a whole will survive, I think he's that important to fin-de-millenium British writing; but whether I'm right about that, who knows?
Whatever, this is definitely the moment to introduce the second of our visual aids this evening, the multifaceted glittering thing. Again it's largely glass, which makes it surprisingly heavy for such a wee thing; and it's got a piece of fabric glued to the base which is definitely coloured, but actually I have no idea what colour it is, because the colour changes depending on what angle you're seeing it from, which facet you're looking through at the time.
Which makes it of course the perfect metaphor for Banks' talent, for his imagination and technique. There are few other writers working in English whose vision is so broad, and who are so bold within that vision; unlike the vast majority of us, Banks has never limited himself, never settled for simply doing again what has worked well before. After The Bridge, he confounded all expectation by returning to his early science fiction, extensively rewriting and then publishing Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. Both of these are admittedly set in the same imagined universe, but each works in a dramatically different way within that universe. Consider Phlebas is a great space epic, a book about merciless war played out between two societies founded on irreconcilable philosophies: one harsh and militaristic, the other highly advanced both technically and socially, where artificial intelligence exists on a par with human and all necessary work can be done by machines, so that people are given ultimate freedom to spend their lives how they choose. This is The Culture with a capital C, and Iain himself has said that it's pretty much his idea of heaven; given the choice, who wouldn't choose to live a much-extended life in a society where there are no stigmas and no inhibitions, where sex can be as casual as you fancy or as committed as you desire, where hundreds of mind-altering but completely harmless drugs are available within your own body's glands, you can swap gender to and fro virtually at will and essentially the only requirement is that you have fun, by whatever is your own definition?
His delicious perversity in Consider Phlebas is to have as his hero a man born neither to the Culture nor to its enemy, but who has such an indomitable objection to the mechanistic philosophy of the Culture that he chooses to side with the enemy; neither is he converted at any point throughout this long novel.
The Player of Games, by contrast, is a book with a much narrower focus, though again it treats with the Culture's contact with another civilisation, and again the invention is awesome. Invention, though, is only a side-issue even in Banks' science fiction, it's never an end in itself; he likes to explore what is monumentally implausible and persuade us that it is at least possible, he's a man who loves games and jokes and vast, fantastic structures; but fundamentally all he's ever writing about is human perception and human emotion, character and flaw and resolution. I think sometimes he can be more truthful, more genuinely understanding and revelatory in his SF than he is in his supposedly more realistic contemporary fiction.
Next came Espedair Street, a mainstream rock-and-roll novel that I'll come back to later; that was followed by the third Culture novel, Use of Weapons, which I'll definitely come back to later. What I want to look at now, because it fascinates me, is Canal Dreams.
This is another mainstream book, and it seems to me to stand so totally outside his oeuvre that I have a slightly-less-than-serious conviction that he didn't actually write it, that this is just a Banksian joke, a monumental twist on the notion of the nom de guerre. With a man whose work, particularly his mainstream work, is all so diverse, it may seem perverse in me to single out one book for its difference; but this is more than a difference in content or voice, it's a difference in soul, and that I just find gobsmacking. I want to know how he did it...
Besides, identifying what makes Canal Dreams so different will hopefully help also in defining what gives the rest of his oeuvre its unity within the variety, its indisputable Iain Banks-ness.
So. Canal Dreams was the first and is so far the only novel of his to be set in an exotic foreign location that actually exists; but that's not in itself so wonderful, indeed I think it could reasonably be expected that he would at some point want to write about somewhere other than Great Britain or the vasty reaches of outermost space. Nor does the book sound at all unlikely contents-wise: a brief summary would tell you that a middle-aged female Japanese cellist is travelling through the Panama Canal when revolution breaks out around her. The vessel she's travelling on is seized by the rebels, who slaughter everyone on board except her; she then slaughters all the rebels. Okay, fine, it's shocking, it's violent, it's highly unlikely: these are as we know qualities that a lot of people associate with Iain Banks, and with good reason. This is also incidentally one of the little links between Iain and me, in that we've both clearly written roles for Bruce Willis. Bit hard to see him as a Japanese female cellist, perhaps, but that's okay, Hollywood can fix that, they'll just rewrite; and the rest of it is perfect. Die Hard 4 - The Canal Boat. Shortly to be followed by an adaptation of my own novel, Mall Time, hereinafter to be known as Die Hard 5 - The Shopping Mall. Starring Bruce Willis as a kid with one arm who fails at everything that matters to him. But hell, that's okay, Hollywood can fix that...
So it's not the content, or at least not the distilled plotline, that makes this book feel so strange among the others, like an albino in an otherwise-homogenous litter. Neither is it the voice: before and since, Banks' first-person narratives have ranged from an androgynous teenage psychopath to a religious cult priestess via a rock star and a Gonzo journalist; a Japanese lady cellist in her middle years was undoubtedly an adventure, but Banks is nothing if not adventurous.
No, the problem I have in accepting the attribution of authorship in this book is more subtle and more deep-rooted, it's concerned with the tone and temper of the imagination that produced it. Like this: in whatever genre and whatever voice he's working at the time, Iain's fiction has always had an underlying vigour to it, a robust, almost exuberant quality that reveals itself in plot and voice and more, in the words he uses and the way he uses them but in the ideas also, and in the jokes and characters and philosophies and conflicts and every separate ingredient, explicit or implied, that goes to make up the totality of the work. Books extend beyond their pages, they afford us a new perspective on the world and ways to live within it, a glimpse into the author's mind if you like; and Iain's mind as revealed through his work is rich and rampant, a tumbling chaos of colour and pattern and energy, fractal geometries that only go deeper the deeper you probe within them. Whereas the mind-set revealed by Canal Dreams - and I do truly believe that this is more than simply the mind-set of the character narrating the story, it's drawn from something much more fundamental and underlying than that, it pervades not only the language but the philosophy, the concept, the whole creative process that produced this book - that mind is precise, controlled, delicate of touch, cautious with new ideas, afraid of the dynamic of change.
How to resolve this paradox? I was pondering on this throughout the time I was reading the novel, finding myself genuinely confused by what was going on here; and eventually I remembered something I'd read years ago, a theory about the development of visual art in very different cultures. I don't know how much truth there is in this, but the proposition was that there was a direct relationship between the vigour of a society's art and the calorific content of its diet. Hence Renaissance Italy with all its abundance tended to produce robust and dramatic art on a grand scale, whereas Japan, where the population generally subsisted on a low-calory diet barely above starvation levels, made work that was very cool, very still, very passive. Despite the excesses of the storyline, it's that sense of stillness and passivity that saturates Canal Dreams; and the very alienness of that when contrasted to the rest of Banks' work reminded me of something else, something that had happened to me.
As it happens, it was something that I had recently written about for a book called The Tiger Garden, which is an anthology of two hundred-odd writers recollecting specific dreams. If it hadn't been for that book, I might never have made this connection; but I'm a great believer in serendipity, it's my
fundamental answer to the question every writer gets asked all the time, "Where do you get your ideas from?" So, I'd just like to read you a section from the piece I wrote for the book:
Most of my dreams are lucid, and have been since I was a very small child (too many nightmares, too young: I learned to recognise that I was dreaming and wake myself up, and from there it's only a small step to staying in the dream but taking charge of it, redirecting, killing off the bad stuff, having fun). At that level there's very little difference between dream and imagination, and accordingly (I think) I lay precious little store by dreams or their supposed meanings. "Don't tell me yours and I won't tell you mine" is the general cry.
There is, of course, the exception. Just the one: the only dream I can be bothered to remember long-term, and it's twelve or thirteen years old already. It was the night I started my first novel; started at midnight or a little after, spent two or three hours working myself into the head of a psychopath, went straight from keyboard to bed. Bad idea. However strange the concepts in a dream, however uncontrolled you let it run, it seems to me that there is always a familiar grammar to the images, an argot you can recognise. It may be wild, but it is at least identifiably your dream.
Not so for me that night. This was someone else's head I was still occupying, or whose head was occupying me; for all that I'd invented him, he was not of my blood, and his dreams didn't speak my language. Scariest thing that ever happened to me in bed, that was.
I remember not black-and-white but monochrome or near it, a world drawn in sepia. I remember figures little more than sketched in, closer to two- than three-dimensional, like an artist's rough cartoon and a long way yet from a finished work. I remember jagged discontinuities, no structure, no coherence; no story that held itself together for longer than a couple of beats, consistency only in the imagery, and that was all images of war. Or no, not war: après-guerre I guess, the army come to town. Tanks in city streets are what I remember most, and military figures swarming on the tanks and all around them, very ant-like. Myself one with them, clinging to hot metal or running beside it; but also contemporaneously an observer, watching from high windows. I don't remember any fighting, only threat and tension and the exultation of power on the one side, heavy defeat and fear on the other. And this went on and on, the same images constantly recurring with minor variations. I don't know, but I'd have no trouble believing that this is an identifiably sociopathic pattern of dreaming. Actually, I don't want to know: too scary. Not my house, no, but I built it...
From The Tiger Garden: A book of writers' dreams, ed Nicholas Royle, 1996
And my own private theory about Canal Dreams is exactly that, that in seeking to write about a character from a strikingly different culture, Iain worked himself so far into her head that he was taken over not simply by the character, but by the culture she came from; so that the resultant book was informed throughout by a world-view diametrically opposed to his own. It's not for me to say that he was scared by this, as I was scared by what happened to me that night; but it is worth noting perhaps that he hasn't made that particular experiment again.
Oh, and one final word on Canal Dreams: it does seem to me to be a very, very fine book indeed. It's just not one of his, is all. It doesn't belong.
The concept of belonging brings me very neatly on to my final way of seeing Iain Banks through a glass, darkly. This particular piece of glassware, as I said at the start, is really rather sad. It's inspired by the same malicious spirit that leads men to wear ties made up of their clan tartan - and I'm sure you won't need reminding that it was John Ruskin who said that any man who would wear a tartan tie was surely bound for hell.
This is, in fact, a paperweight engraved on the base with the arms of my own clan, the Grants; and its relevance, of course, is that so much of Iain's work is so thoroughly imbued with his Scottishness. There is a fine tradition of writers coming from Scotland, but in recent years there seems to me to have been a welcome resurgence of genuinely Scottish writing, from writers as diverse as William MacIlvanney, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh; and Iain also has his place in that movement. I was actually quite surprised when I worked it out on my fingers, to discover just how firmly his work is embedded north of the border; of his eight mainstream novels, only a couple are not set largely or entirely in Scotland. And it's not just a matter of scenery, again it goes a lot deeper than that, it's a matter almost of soul. Nationality is far more than landscape and accent; if he'd tried to set the same stories somewhere else, they'd have come out as very different books. I guess this is the converse of the puzzle I had over Canal Dreams: that the heart of his work, what holds the corpus together despite his occasional foray into other territories, is the inescapable fact of his being Scottish.
Actually, 'inescapable' is probably the wrong word, in that it carries implications that he might want or try to escape, that he might see it as a limitation, and I don't believe that he does. I know that he did leave Scotland to live in Kent for a while, but he's gone back now to the village he was born in, North Queensferry, directly under the Forth rail bridge. Maybe he just likes dodging rusty bits of shrapnel every time he goes for a walk, but I think more likely he returned to his roots because he doesn't want them severed, he actually celebrates that sense of belonging.
Certainly what I think is his best book is a great celebration of Scottishness, of family, of belonging, albeit imbued with the darkness and the bizarrerie that are the other hallmarks of his writing. That of course is The Crow Road, which is currently bringing his work to the attention of a yet wider audience, through an extremely fine TV adaptation. I spoke jokingly before about the opportunity for Hollywood to bastardise Canal Dreams, and it is certainly true that a clumsy or an uncaring adaptation can render a novel all but unrecognisable; but one of the difficulties inherent in dramatising a long and complex novel is that generally there simply isn't the space within a couple of hours of film- or theatre-time or even the extended run-time of a TV serial to retain those intricacies of plot and character that provide the richness and depth of a novel. I think it's that, coupled with a failure to recognise that drama is a fundamentally different art form with different priorities to prose, which so often leads people to criticise adaptations for not remaining true to the original. Faithful, they usually say, it's not faithful to the book; when what they usually mean is that the actors are not as blonde or as fat as they ought to be, some favourite episodes are missing and the narrative drive has been reshaped to suit the imperatives of the new medium, and often what they're missing is that the core of the original is still very much there, and that the writer and director have striven heart and soul to retain the artistic impulse which is the essence of a book, and the only part of it which demands fidelity. Witness the Jane Austen purists getting hot under their lace collars over Mr Darcy going for a swim in the lake...
What is currently astonishing me about The Crow Road on TV is actually how little they've had to lose along the way. Disregarding the stupidities of physical resemblance to the characters as written, I've nevertheless been forced into a degrading pedantry: Ashley's broken nose is missing, and I do miss that; the complexities of recovering data from an archaic computer disk that conforms to no known industry standard have been glossed over; a few other trivialities. Otherwise, it all seems to be there: all the delicate interweavings of plot and character and observation, the cross-currents of time that demand flashbacks to two separate generations of children, the eccentric theology and the furious atheism, all the difficult, spiky relationships within an extended family of quarrelsome people - nothing that matters in the book has been lost on television, which is an extraordinary achievement, and I think says as much for the clarity of the original novel as it does for the commitment of the production team. Me, I would never have believed it possible to retain so much in a four-hour series without ultimately confusing anyone who didn't know the book as well as I do.
And I haven't even mentioned all the twists and complications involved in uncovering the essential mystery that lies at the heart of the book and drives the action throughout, the deaths and disappearances that bedevil the McHoan family. I love this book, I guess that's obvious, and I'm just so pleased that it's being brought to a much wider audience in such a genuine and God-bless-us-all faithful way.
Having said all of which, Gavin who hasn't read the book yet told me that he thought the TV seemed lightweight. Not much substance beneath the surface, he said, not what he expected of Iain Banks. Which may very well mean that I who know the book extremely well am simply using the TV scenes to cue my memory of the book, and drawing the depths and resonances from there.
Unless of course what it really means is that I just have a lightweight mind, and prefer glossing over the surface to digging out the substance. That's always possible. It's even possible that the book is actually more lightweight than Banks' standard fare, and that's why I like it so much. I don't believe that, but I could be mistaken. Certainly I had a wee argument with him about it one time, when he was doing a gig in Newcastle; he'd said something to the effect that he likes to write about monumental excess, and so would never produce anything close to a traditional literary novel, and I challenged him on that. Pointed out that The Crow Road was really a rites-of-passage, coming-of-age novel at its heart, which is absolutely within the tradition; and that it was also a lot quieter and less excessive than much of his other work. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "It does start with this guy's grandmother being blown up..."
Which indeed it does; it's the very first sentence, It was the day my grandmother exploded. But that's just one of his jokes, and one of the joys about the jokes in this particular book is that they're all perfectly reasonable in context. There is a very persuasive explanation as to why Prentice's grandmother explodes, which actually makes it funnier in a deeply morbid sort of way, and also perversely helps to root the book very firmly within our own experience of contemporary Britain. As a general rule Banks isn't too concerned about down-to-earth credibility, he'll go way over the top if he wants to, and just rely on his skill and inventiveness to take his readers with him; but here I think he's been deliberately moderate despite his denials, so that the eccentricities of Prentice's family work like the broad strokes of a satirical cartoonist, simply to emphasise the follies that we can all see around us every day.
I seem to have moved on towards discussing the ongoing debate between Iain and me; so let's just do that and wrap this up. I should stress again that this is by way of being a strictly one-sided and silent debate; except for the odd public encounter, Iain doesn't actually know it's happening. But I find it entertaining and useful both, and I'm hardly the first writer to conduct two sides of an argument in the privacy of his own head. Indeed I think this is the bones of the creative act, for writers of fiction: all drama is constructed from dialogue and conflict, from characters interrelating; it all starts in the imagination, before it gets to the page; you take what you have of a character and extrapolate a personality and attitudes from their situation and from what they say or do. Seems to me to make little difference if you're doing this with someone who actually exists, rather than a pure invention.
It's also important to be able to hold two or more totally contradictory points of view at the same time and believe each of them implicitly, if you're to do justice to each of your characters. Fortunately, I'm such a wishy-washy and easily-persuasible character myself, that's never been a problem.
All of which is not really a divagation, I'm sort of coming back to where I started: that there are these two writers, Chaz and Iain, and they quite often have a little ding-dong inside my skull. In many ways we are actually quite similar writers: we're both theatrical primitives if you like, we're both fond of fireworks, of thunder and lightning and big dramatic effects, in story and in style; we both love genre, and we've both written a wide range of work, from in-your-face contemporary fiction to weird fantasy. So we do have valid things to say to each other, I think, even if he's not yet listening to me. That doesn't stop me pointedly rewriting bits of his books for him, muttering the while about Homer nodding and such; neither does it stop him criticising mine; but usually we just end up accusing each other of stealing our best ideas...
A few years ago now, I was asked to contribute a short story to a collection of crime writing from the north of England. The collection's called Northern Blood - I thought of that - there are now two volumes, and I recommend them to your attention. But this specific story in the first volume, I'd recently been taken on a walk in the Tyne valley that led us through an old abandoned settlement, just a few tumbledown huts really in a wood, and the place was so strange it was like a gift to a man in search of an idea. Serendipity again, I'm a great believer in using what comes to hand. So I wrote this story, A Terrible Prospect of Bridges it's called, about a sort of post-hippy community led by a visionary and his very practical brother; and the community is torn apart by a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two of them, which leads to an appalling act of violence one dark and stormy night. But then at the end the story twists around brutally, to confound all the reader's assumptions. I've said already that I'm not fond of stories with a twist, where the reader is just set up to be made a fool of by the writer, where you can almost hear the writer's voice whispering "I really got you there, didn't I?"; but in this particular instance it seemed to me that I wasn't just being clever for its own sake, the strength of the story and the two characters involved absolutely justified, indeed demanded the inversion.
I used to love that story; and actually I still do. But the memory of it is always clouded now by what is either sheer coincidence or else something stronger and more mysterious, simultaneous evolution perhaps, or serendipity taking on another aspect; because Iain's third science fiction novel, Use of Weapons came out a few months before my story, though I didn't get to read it till later, and the similarities are extraordinary. Not in the stories themselves, but in the psychological stresses that drive them, and in the ultimate resolution of those forces into action. Again we have two men brought up as close kin, who end up tearing each other apart; again we have a single monstrous act of violence, perpetrated as in my story against an innocent loved by both men; and he ends with exactly the same savage twist as did I. It's uncanny, it really does look even to me like a classic case of one writer ripping off another, and as I say his was published first, so inevitably I look the guilty party.
However, I get to fight back gleefully, because a couple of years later Iain published a novel called Complicity which falls very much into my territory, its being a psychological thriller about a serial killer. It's a very bright, sharp, brutal story, and in other circumstances I would have loved it unreservedly; but what really gripes me is the amount of praise he garnered for its technical accomplishment, particularly in its realisation of the killer's mentality. Stunningly clever, the reviews all said, strikingly original. Specifically, what they all went overboard about was the way he'd handled the actual murders, taking us into the killer's head by writing those sections in the present tense but the second person, You hear a car pull up in the street outside. This is what you've been waiting for... and so on. And yes, sure, it's very potent, it's very dramatic, it's very effective - and I'd done exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons in my very first novel, The Samaritan, which was published six years earlier and not one of these wretched reviewers had so much as deigned to notice it...
Again the similarities are uncanny - I had actually planned to prepare a little collage, paragraphs from his book and paragraphs from mine, with a challenge to see if anyone could identify which was which; only I ran out of time, alas - and again it would be all too easy to assume that Iain had read my book at some point, and consciously or otherwise lifted the technique when he came to write his. But truthfully, I don't seriously imagine that that is the case. Rather I think that there is in effect a common pool of ideas or inspiration or whatever you want to call it, into which writers dip their individual cups; but it's really more like dipping into a book than a pool, because what you take away still remains for others also to find and take, whether simultaneously or after a period of years. We're all working from the same basic material, whether it's human psychology or the mechanics of a motor or the wonderful adaptability of the English language. It's no great wonder if two writers should approach with the same question and come away with the same answer; that for one pair of writers it should happen twice within a couple of years is a little more curious, but probably no more than a reasonable coincidence, especially given that as I say we do inhabit something of the same imaginative landscape.
Which more or less concludes what I want to say, except for a final thought on one constant aspect of Iain Banks' writing, almost an obsession, that serves more than anything else to tie all his varied work into a consistent whole. In both the mainstream novels and the science fiction he writes a lot about families, though they're usually more or less dysfunctional; he uses flashbacks and memory a great deal, to underline how the events of the past influence or manipulate or even actively direct events in the present; specifically, it's striking how many of his characters, how many of his novels indeed are driven by some dark truth buried in childhood, slowly to be unpeeled and revealed before the story's climax. It's a theme he returns to time and again, though he rings many changes around it; and ultimately I think it's this that gives his books their strength, that raises them from being simply good, clever, uncomfortable stories to another level altogether. I think that Iain Banks writes genuine tragedies, tragedy for the modern age; it's just that being typically perverse, some of them - by no means all, but some - are tragedies with a happy ending.
Read a review of The Algebraist, Iain Banks's latest book.
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© Chaz Brenchley 1996 / 2004
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.