Sunday, September 6, 2009

Something To Crow About

There are many aspiring authors, but not many achieve success. Even fewer writers are capable of gaining success in two genres, but the Scottish novelist Iain Banks has managed that rare feat, writing “mainstream” fiction under his birth name and high-concept science fiction as Iain M. Banks, including the initial of his unofficial middle name, Menzies, to differentiate between the two styles. His publishers, Abacus, used to further distinguish his books by using black and white covers for the mainstream novels, while printing the science fiction jackets in colour, though I’m not sure whether this branding was important, as Banks has walked confidently in both worlds throughout his career.

According to Time Out, Banks is “one of the most able, energetic and stimulating writers we have in the UK”. Although his “mainstream” fiction is, by definition, less vividly imagined than the science fiction, he still mixes flights of gothic fantasy with a wealth of straight social realism. When you see Banks interviewed, with his irrepressibly curly hair, impatient eyebrows and glinting eyes, you can sense that he is a bit of a rebel, which is revealed in his books through attacks on contemporary politics, big business and technology.

"Happy talk"

Perhaps the most accessible and certainly most likeable of Banks’ books is The Crow Road, which was first published in 1992. Banks himself described it as a “happier novel”, but it still contains enough menace and dark humour to please fans of his first book, the macabre The Wasp Factory, as can be seen with the incendiary first few lines:

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

This is a black comedy with plenty of dry wit, but excludes the violent imagery of some of Banks’ other work, so is arguably his funniest book. There is usually a deft splash of humour to lighten the tone of any dramatic, sinister scenes, though not so intrusive as to trivialise the seriousness of the situation. In this way any sense of melancholy arising from the main character’s seemingly doomed love life is balanced with the hilarity ensuing from the protagonists’ numerous eccentricities. The Crow Road is a long, intense tale, but the pace is never allowed to flag, due to its hip, droll humour.

"In the shadowplay"

Banks told an interviewer that The Crow Road was about “death, sex, faith, cars, Scotland and drink” and it’s true that the novel considers all of these themes in depth, but it’s also a story about the attempts of a young man, Prentice McHoan, to discover the secrets of his unusual family, while trying to cope with the problems and pressures of growing up.

Uncle Rory disappears while writing a book (called The Crow Road) and Prentice is tasked by his grandmother to solve the mystery of what happened to him: is he dead or alive? If he is dead, was he killed or did he take his own life? If he is alive, where the hell is he? During this quest, Prentice seeks to gain a better understanding of his wealthy and eccentric family, especially his parents' tragic and complicated generation. This becomes particularly important to him after his father Kenneth, a committed atheist, is killed by lightning while climbing a church tower, trying to settle an argument about the existence of God (told you about the dark humour).

However, Prentice’s focus does not simply revolve around looking for Rory, as he is struggling with all the difficulties that normal life throws at a student: university studies, friends, lovers, enemies and financial hardship. Like any young man, he is trying to work out who he is, how he came to be that way and what he wants to become. He seeks help through the usual channels of drink, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but is equally preoccupied with death and religion, so much so that he is not talking with his father, following a huge argument over the existence of God. His soul is not comforted by physical love, as he has an unrequited adolescent crush on his cousin Verity.

"The Player of Games"

In many ways, Prentice is a deeply flawed individual. Self-absorbed, selfish and stubborn, he is disengaged from his studies, meandering through his day-to-day existence with his head in the clouds. Exhibiting all of the arrogance, immaturity and uncertainty of youth, he is disastrous at relationships, but at the same time he’s clever, witty, charismatic and occasionally charming. However, all of Banks’ central characters ultimately possess an agreeable nature, however disturbing the background, and Prentice is no exception. He knows when he’s being sulky or acting like an idiot, and berates himself for behaving so badly. Although he’s packed with faults and foibles, you find yourself identifying with him, as he’s just like any other flawed real person. He’s a character that you shouldn’t really like, but you cannot help but feel affection for this hapless hero. Like a more grounded Holden Caulfield, his youthful tone can be woeful and even depressive, but his sense of humour habitually rescues him.

It’s not that easy to categorise The Crow Road. Ostensibly an old-fashioned mystery, it can also be viewed as a coming of age tale, though you could equally detect elements of a romance, a thriller and even/especially a comic novel. It is to Banks’ credit that he manages to orchestrate the shifts between humour, pathos, tragedy and suspense so well without the narrative jarring. His subtle skill in balancing all these themes is admirable, though he has said that he is “not a particularly analytical writer. If it works, it works. It’s almost a superstition: if you look into it too much, you might destroy the magic”.

"In search of the perfect dram"

This is also Banks’ version of the family saga, being a tale of three families, which are linked through marriages crossing the class divide. It’s not quite Trollope, as there’s a lot more sex and swearing in Banks’ rendition, but there is a strong sense of time and place – and the family secrets are eventually unravelled. Prentice’s key relationship is probably the one he has (or more accurately doesn’t have) with his father, Kenneth, though others are more amusing:

Right, now this isn’t as bad as it sounds, but … I was in bed with my Aunt Janice.

Indeed, the book contains a fascinating set of strongly drawn characters. Each one is memorable and distinctive without resorting to caricature, even though Prentice clearly feels somewhat lost and confused in his tangled family history. Many years later Banks returned to the family theme with The Steep Approach to Garbadale, but argued that it was worthwhile revisiting old territory: “Families are just such fertile ground. We’ve all got one and they’re all a bit mad”.

"No, I said Matter - not meter."

The novel charts Prentice’s rite of passage. At first it describes that confusing period in your early twenties when everything seems to collapse at once, but it also speaks of the need to move on and mature. Prentice’s journey is as much about discovering himself and there’s a strong sense of growing up as his seemingly aimless, drunken walk through life takes a turn for the thoughtful and sober. His struggles to belong (within family, community and society) are eased, when he realises that he is not as inferior as he had believed:

People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots…in fact I think they have to be…a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots. It is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.

However, this is also obviously a novel about death and its lingering effects on the living. The McHoans have a history of early, unexpected deaths in the family – and they tend to die in odd ways. The Crow Road itself, apart from being a real location in Glasgow, is a Scottish expression for death, as in: “He’s away the Crow Road”. The appropriateness of this title is immediately apparent, as the book begins with a funeral and many more meet an untimely end along the way. In some ways, this is a funny book - with a lot of death in it.

"You talking to me, Jimmy?"

One of the major topics is the quest for truth as the narrator searches for the answers to the great questions of life, including religious truth. Prentice’s father is an atheist who has brought his children up to question everything and make their own decisions. He is therefore extremely disappointed when his son, perhaps in a fit of childhood rebellion, tells him that he believes in some form of higher power.

Fairness is something we made up. It’s an idea. The universe isn’t fair or unfair. It works by mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biochemistry. Things happen. It takes a mind to come along and call them fair or not.

The story takes place in Scotland and captures the atmosphere of the country perfectly from the stunning imagery of mountains, lochs, valley and cairns to the mundane details of everyday life. Oh, and there’s some drinking too - actually an awful lot of drinking with a variety of consequences, including a painfully funny account of an almighty Hogmanay hangover.

One of the stylistic features in Banks’ writing is frequently switching back and forth in time, even having flashbacks within flashbacks. While this confuses some (primarily those of a limited attention span), for me this non-linear narrative is handled very well. Banks only introduces background knowledge when it is relevant, for example helping to create more depth to a character. As the novel progresses, we discover that all the insignificant and apparently random movements in time contribute to the main plot. Moreover, this is exactly how our minds work in real life with memories being sparked by other events and then cascading to form a whole. Far from being a gimmick, this results in a more natural way of looking at things.

Another writing trait is the use of multiple voices and points of view, switching the narrative between Prentice and his father. Thus, we get a more balanced view than most books with a teenage protagonist, as we can also understand the father and his motivations. It is interesting to see the reasons for Kenneth’s actions as well as the reactions they provoke in his son. Given the multi-layered narrative, the quality of the dialogue is particularly impressive.

Prentice, have you been reading crime novels instead of your history books?

No. The worst crimes are always in the history books, anyway.

Speaking of history, the story is very precisely set in the early 90s with its references to the first Gulf War, the Thatcher government, the Poll Tax and, er, Lloyd Cole. The book gives a very specific snapshot of young people, their clothes and their music from that time (“when I started to understand the lyrics of a Cocteau Twins song, I knew I was wrecked”). In a way, it’s starting to feel like a period piece, but the book remains as sharp and witty as ever.

"Stone the crows"

The book has been adapted for a television series of the same name, starring Joseph McFadden as Prentice; Dougray Scott as his smart-alec, elder brother Lewis; and a young Peter Capaldi (the superb Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) as uncle Rory. Unlike many similar adaptations, this one was a high class, delicate and engaging production with Banks sending the producers a letter thanking them for “looking after my baby”.

The Crow Road may be Banks at his most bankable, but it’s also an extraordinary tale rendered so carefully that it feels universal. It has entertaining characters and situations, realistic relationships and problems with a solid and enthralling plot. Banks has said that he “wanted to write something big and a bit untidy, a bit scruffy in itself”. He’s done much more than that, but as a great man once said, “creative minds are rarely tidy”.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this. As a teenager I identified very strongly with Prentice (despite his obvious flaws), so much so that, in tribute, I ended up attending the same uni that Iain did (Stirling)... Will be re-reading it now, hopefully the bbc will repeat the show as well


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