Monday, 26 August 2013


Iain (M.) Banks. The most talented British writer of the last two generations. Discuss.

It's certainly a discussion point. Others might point out the literary qualities of an Amis or a McEwan. But I personally doubt that they have the range Iain (M.) Banks had in a literary career spanning 30 years and almost 30 novels until his death earlier this year. Throughout that career Banks combined the oft-sneered-at popular with the literary. He even had the snobbish critics falling over to praise his magnificent science fiction work.

And it was this range which truly marked him out from the pack. He was equally comfortable writing a Scottish family drama (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, for example) as a 10-volume space opera about his idea of the ultimate utopia (the Culture novels). In between times there was dimension-hopping 'literary' SF (Transition), the discomfiting horror novel that sparked it all off (The Wasp Factory) and Scottish gangsters.

Stonemouth, his penultimate non-genre/literary novel, falls into the Scottish gangsters category. Stewart Gilmour returns to his hometown of Stonemouth, a Scottish estuary town somewhere north of Aberdeen, for the first time in five years. The last time he was there he was running for his life from the town's drug-lords-in-chief, the Murstons. But Joe Murston, family patriarch, is dead, and Stewart returns to pay his respects with the ostensible permission of the Murston clan - knowing that the girl who haunts his past is still in the town.

Banks always had the knack of combining character, plot and setting to beautiful effect. And so he proved yet again in Stonemouth. Right from the off it's easy to relate to Stewart, the first-person, present-tense point of view protagonist. He's the high-flier returning to the dead-end town of his past in trepidation. His doubts and worries are clear from the first scene, with him stood on the nearby suspension bridge contemplating the suicides who meet their ends leaping over the barriers, and the deaths of his past.

From there the plot unfolds in classic Banks fashion, like an ever-widening lens in a camera slowly revealing the whole vista from the original pinpoint view. The main focus is on events of the long weekend Stewart spends in Stonemouth, but flashbacks reveal Stewart's past in Stonemouth, including the reasons for his flight from the town in fear for his life. Stewart's overall life story is hardly a Greek tragedy, but it has all the hallmarks of Banksonian sadism and cruel humour stamped over it. Bizarre deaths, even more bizarre golf course incidents and a star-crossed relationship all provide cornerstones in understanding the protagonist.

Even without the twist Banks put on all his work the book would have been a satisfying read. But Banks, as ever, raised it above the level of being merely satisfying with his keen observations on the minutiae of modern life which serve to enhance the experience. And then there's Banks' usual undercurrent of violence just beneath the already-tumultuous surface. One or two incidents explode off the page in heart-stopping fashion. Multi-faceted and much more than skin-deep in each of those aspects, Stonemouth is a surprisingly complex piece of work for a relatively simple premise.

I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed Stonemouth more than The Wasp Factory or Use of Weapons. But enjoy it I most certainly did. It was a pleasure to slip back into a Banksonian mindset for a few days and experience the inimitable talent of Banks yet again.

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