Friday, April 13, 2007

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

Alban McGill, wayward scion of the wealthy Wopuld family, is heading back to the old house at Garbadale for a reunion. The family's fortune comes from the board game Empire!, invented by great-grandfather in the Victorian era, now a massive franchise with thriving spinoffs and computer-game formats and in danger of a corporate takeover from big American company. A chance comment by dotty old aunt sets him trying to unravel the mystery of his mother's suicide, so he delves into the family's murky history while trying to sort out his feelings for childhood sweetheart Cousin Sophie...

Iain Banks is nominally one of my favourite authors, but it's been a good few years since he's written anything I'd consider great. This one has been billed as a return to the glory days of The Crow Road, but in fact it feels like a Greatest Hits montage of lots of his other books. We have the sprawling eccentric family of The Crow Road and Whit, international corporate hijinks from The Business, a board game that could have come from The Player of Games, a girl who likes solitary mountain climbing like the one in Consider Phlebas, a character whose badly-spelt viewpoint echoes Bascule from Feersum Endjinn, an arrogant posh bird whose type features in several other books... and a "surprise" ending that any regular Banks reader will be able to spot a mile off. I'm hoping that this was all deliberate and not a sign that he's run out of ideas, but even so, it was quite annoying.

The Banks Medley is not the only strange stylistic choice, either. All the crappy devices used to make Crack of Death look amateur are at work here - shifting viewpoints, tenses jumping back and forth, switches between first and third person... we know Banks is too good a writer to be doing this accidentally, but the fact that it's intentional doesn't make it any easier to read. There's clumsy shoehorning-in of lazy political points, too; some characters have a conversation about global warming for no particular reason, and the stereotypical American businessmen are like little puppets who only exist to provoke Alban's anti-Bush rants.

Having said this, it's not all bad; in fact, to start off with I was very impressed. The initial sense that Something is Wrong is well built-up, and there are some gorgeously written passages too, mostly relating to Alban's mother's suicide. It's only when you get halfway in that it starts to grate - the story's not as interesting as it promises to be, the political point-scoring is cheap and obvious, and for all its classic Banks references, this is no Complicity. It's barely even a Walking On Glass - more like a tired imitation of an Iain Banks book than the real thing.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good review! I read it a week ago and meant to post something about it but didn't get around to it. Since I agree with pretty much everything you say I won't have to, either.

I was also struck by the very predictable "revelation" at the end and by the way so many components of the book were recycled from previous books. A shame, really!

12:49 pm  

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