Fearful Symmetry

Film. Books. Comics. TV. Music.

The Steep Approach To Garbadale by Iain Banks

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Snakes and ladders

Snakes and ladders

For me, with writers, there’s Iain Banks and there’s all the rest. Other writers I’ve developed obsessions about – Tim Willocks, for instance – but with Banks the obsession is deep and total. So a new Banks coming out is a major event. Especially when there’s hasn’t been one for a while, with the author deciding to slow down from the one-book a year (alternating between sf and lit fict.) of his earlier career, and the latest being delayed by events in Banks’ life (getting divorced if you didn’t know already).

Whilst in his ‘M’ guise, Banks sf output has remained high in turns of quality, there’s a general consensus that there’s been somewhat a dip with regards to his ‘M-less’ output: Whit being somewhat uninspiring, The Business and especially Dead Air being distinctly underwritten (or as a friend of mine said, more succinctly, ‘shit’). Only the literary but bleak A Song Of Stone, based on a long poem Banks wrote years ago, stands-out in the non-sf novels since the glory days of his early years finished with Complicity – although even then he still turned out the odd clunker like Canal Dreams. So is A Steep Approach To Garbadale a return to form? Well, judging by most of the reviews, no; although I think differently…

The plot revolves around the character of Alban and his relationship to his family, the Wopulds. They have built a large fortune from the board game Empire!, the success of which has waxed and waned over the years but is currently on the ascendant in various computer versions. Alban, a bit of leftie, had escaped his mostly right-wing thinking family years ago but is brought back into their influence due to a coming shareholders meeting to decide whether to sell out to the American Spraint Corp; this will also provide an opportunity for Alban to reconcile his feelings regarding his cousin Sophie. As Alban travels around trying to persuade various relatives to vote against the merger we see how his relationship with both Sophie and the rest of his family and the business developed along with him uncovering dark secrets at the heart of the family.

Now the main secret is, as many have pointed out, not too difficult to work out given that it is pretty heavily sign-posted. And it does not really help the impact of the novel that one of the key events – and one of the most powerfuly written – is heavily spoilered in just about every review written and posted as an extract on the author’s official website.

Another complaint is that the novel is just a miss-mash of plot elements from Banks’ previous work: the sprawling family saga from The Crow Road, the rants against recent American foreign policy from Dead Air, the world of global corporations from The Business, castles in just about everything, etc etc. But I wonder if that’s the point…

Early on in the novel this sentence jumped out at me:

Al… turns and looks down at the water rushing gently past beneath. It’s clear brown like smoked glass and sparkles fitfully under the sun.

Is this a pointer to Walking on Glass? The railway bridge in the same chapter a nod at The Bridge. And I think I spotted some more subtle references. Is Banks deliberately playing games with us? Or am I reading too much into this, trying to make the book better than it actually is – yes, probably I am. But I’m sure there is more going on in the plot than just the superficial, the various characters all scheming players in various games – games of love, games of business; that in fact we are all players in the meta-game of life itself. That the ‘steep approach to Garbadale’ is not just a difficult physical route that our hero takes to the castle at the end of the novel, or a psychological one leading to reconciliation with both himself and his family, but a hard route to a deeper understanding of the novel, and through it, Banks’ work as a whole.

But even if you don’t want to play the game of looking for hidden depths, and think the plot and themes are just a bit sub-standard I think you will have to accept Banks is really on top of his game in other areas, with clever linguistic diversions like his puns, some well-drawn eccentric characters like the two aunts, fantastic descriptive touches – especially with regards to landscape, but a delirious drugged up sequence in Hong Kong is a standout and there’s some inspired satanic and hellish imaginary at a couple of key points – plus some humorous touches that had me laughing out loud.

Oh and there’s a recipie in it. Though it sounds so vile, that I won’t be cooking it. May be I’m not so obsessive after all…

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 16, 2009 at 9:08 am

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