When I was fifteen or so I took a coach trip. South-west to north, an adventure of sorts; ten hours or so that felt like ten days, a clapped-out old charabanc winding and wheezing it’s way through an usually hot English summer as if intent upon resting at every small town within a 50 mile radius of a direct route.
I sat at the rear of the coach – an awkward teenager travelling light, high on the freedom afforded by that first, big, solo trip. And a few hours into this detour through middle England I was joined by a guy a few years older than me. Long hair, biker’s jacket (despite the heat), a paperback poking out from the top of his backpack as he nonchalantly made his way towards the back of the bus. And we started chatting, as travellers sometimes do. He was a student, visiting friends before the new university term began, and whilst the details of conversation are lost in the haze – music would have been the primary topic, I have little doubt – I do vividly recall what happened when I motioned toward the book in his bag and asked him what he was reading.
“Oh, it’s just your average tale of love and loss, all set to the type of soundtrack only ’70’s hippies could have thought beautiful. I finished it, waiting for the bus to arrive. In fact, here – consider it a gift. I think you’ll appreciate it”.
The above took place quite some time ago. These days, impromptu conversation on public transport has been supplanted by the demands of that digital box of tricks we carry about our personage. And whilst all this enhanced connectivity – we blog, we comment, we email, we engage with multiple sources on a simultaneous basis – is a wonderful thing, saving us from having to chat with random strangers on the bus, there are elements of our online behaviour that can induce a cringe.
I’ve always been perplexed by the hive-mind reaction when people in the public eye pass away. Of course, in such instances our many shared reference points propagate broadly similar feelings of deflation, and I’m certainly not taking a pop at anyone electronically articulating their emotions during a sad time. However, our online environments act like giant echo chambers, amplifying any shock or sadness until the overall effect becomes overwhelming – a constant stream of RIP messages, awkward and mawkish by virtue of their repetition. Because this isn’t grief – that’s something private to friends and family of those no longer with us. Instead, it’s a form of grief several times removed, our sadness pointed towards the cultural impact of the recently departed, rather than first-hand knowledge of the person themselves.
Electronic eulogising is something I consciously try to avoid, and when the name of Iain Banks appears in the obituary columns – as he yesterday confirmed will be happening sooner rather than later – any online presence of mine will be otherwise indisposed. Which I why I wanted to write these words now, I guess, rather than on a sadder occasion. Because the present tense is so much preferable to the past, and as you’ll have guessed, that book from a stranger on a coach was an Iain Banks – Espedair Street, to be precise; it had a huge impact upon the awkward adult this awkward teenager became.
Banks is not the most accomplished author currently writing in the English language. He’s not the most technically brilliant, nor the most challenging on any visceral level, and whilst his plot cadences often pinion on clever (and occasionally grotesque) twists, you never get the impression that he’s set out to deliberately play post-modern, literary games with his readership.
In fact, if anything, Banks has more than just a whiff of the old-fashioned storyteller about him. Even his more formidable Culture novels – broad canvas, highly imaginative sci-fi populated by fantastical creatures with triple-barrelled, consonant-only names – have at their heart a firm allegiance to the power of a good old yarn. And there-in lay one of the facets of why Banks is such an important writer; his understanding of the interplay between plot and narrative voice – two distinct yet integral elements of a successful novel – comes across as something instinctive, natural, an equilibrium that not only implies writing fiction is an easy lark when it’s actually fiendishly difficult to get right, but furthermore provides the graceful framework within which the reader is pulled close.
Because like any skilled storyteller, he takes you with him on the voyage; if I were forced to select a single adjective to define his prose, it would be warmth. That’s a description, of course that can be used in the pejorative – another way of saying asinine, comforting, insubstantial. Yet whilst Banks is generally easy to read he’s not an easy read, if you catch my drift. Rather, he makes the complex appear easily surmountable – you don’t always appreciate how arduous the terrain is until you’ve taken a glance back over your shoulder.
And if that’s what Banks is – the literary equivalent of a mountain guide – his avuncular presence in anything he’s ever published is vital to its success. His is a distinctive affability – readily apparent whether on book-signing duty, sitting as interviewee, or through the results of hammering away at the keyboard. It’s a particularly effective method of prose construction because it enables the reader to identify a constant within any fluctuating narrative, regardless of whether the setting is 1990’s Edinburgh, or some allegorical space-fairing society where the primary species are hyper-intelligent floating gas sacs, or have grown so bored watching the sentience of machinery run things effortlessly, they’ve subsumed themselves into the godhead.
Horrible, brutal, macabre events frequently occur in an Iain Banks narrative; when his début literary success The Wasp Factory burst onto the scene, its glee was so unexpectedly twisted, the author gained a reputation for notoriety that took a few years (and a few more books) to shake off. And yet his work never feels horrible, brutal or macabre; where-as lesser writers deploy shock tactics to flaunt the girth of their own imaginations, or position the shock factor as the centrepiece of proceedings, Banks contextualises these uncompromising shades so that they flow naturally within the contours of any particular story. They make perfect sense to the reader, even if they do sometimes take the protagonist unaware.
I’m not going to head into the details of any particular title here. If you’re reading these words, you’re no doubt familiar with the back catalogue, be it the contemporary literary work, the Iain M Banks sci-fi operas, or both. Not that I’d argue any distinction between the two is necessarily pronounced. Certainly, some of his contemporary fiction – Walking On Glass, The Bridge, Transition – have provenance not too far from science fiction territory. Yet much more than that, there are so many constants strewn across any interpretation of genre; if anything, the primary difference between Banks with and without that pivotal letter ‘M’ is derived from scale – the parameters within which the Earth-based narratives function merely serve to mould these skeins of imagination into more conventional (yet no less perverse, or inventive) shapes.
I think it’s because the central tenet of any Iain Banks book is Banks himself, and an interpretation of life, the universe and everything that chimes so closely with many of his readership. What he never fails to do is to invite the reader into his world. It resembles the one we experience outside our windows every day of the week – even if the sky is a different colour or there’s a sun or two fewer rising in the west – and yet his perception (or agenda, if you prefer) is intrinsically humanistic in nature. The prose is witty, the characterisation attractive, the pace such that it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re heading toward the meat of the plot – and above all, Banks conducts the relationship between reader and words on page with a panache that illuminates the storyteller’s pronounced artistry.
It’s not that the bibliography is without fault. If you don’t broadly share his political outlook, some of the commentary can be interpreted as hectoring. Read enough of his fiction, and you’ll start to identify generic character traits. The cold, elderly matriarch. The idealised, unobtainable love interest (Sara ffitch in Walking On Glass; Inez in Espedair Street; Verity Walker in The Crow Road). A central protagonist that appears to share many of Banks’ own characteristics. And whilst his sci-fi novels have continued to be powerful statements of ambitious intent, his work without the “M” has lost some of its vim and vigour over the years – call it the treadmill demands and less extensive rewards of the modern publishing industry, or a natural slowing down of the inspiration gland; either way, an element of the formulaic has begun to creep in, particularly with The Business or Stonemouth.
And yet that (gentle) criticism belies the point that writing is fucking hard work – and to be successful at it for as long as Banks has is impressive beyond words. And it travels even further than that; the primary reason his announcement of terminal cancer (or, to use his words: “a bit poorly”) had the reaction it did is due to confluence. To how Banksian interpretation flows toward our own, and where any familiarity with his work is to consider him a friend.
There’ll be one, final Iain Banks novel – The Quarry; publication date being brought forward. And then: rewarding memories that his work will continue to spin. Both the sheer ambition and enhanced momentum behind the nine Culture novels would be impressive enough, even without the fifteen lit-fi titles, or the three non-Culture sci-fi’s, or the manifold essays and short stories and pseudo-autobiographical whisky tours that we’ve experienced over the years. And that’s just the big picture stuff – there’s so much nuance contained in a bookshelf of Iain’s writing. I love how he manages to shoehorn the word “dirigible” into pretty much anything he ever writes. How his background in the field of engineering provides a grounded, architectural sheen to the scene setting. His characters have failings, vices, and even the dress sense that mirror our own. And I’m not even that embarrassed to admit that there are several Banks novels I read on an annual basis. Or that I’ve made the occasional pilgrimage to real life locations he’s used – that long-haired oopsie stood beneath the Forth Rail Bridge, or supping cheap lager in The Griffin in Glasgow’s Charing Cross – Danny Weir’s local boozer in Espedair Street – aye, that was me.
And whilst humans are so fantastically adroit at snuffing this mortal coil – maybe even we’ll get a turn, someday – to leave behind not only a legacy but so much love, respect and evocation is very special indeed. Thanks, Iain.