Sunday 19 January 2020

Energetic master of set piece reigns supreme

Hilary A White

Funny how you get to know an author after a few publications. Half a dozen titles in, I enjoy -- and I stress the word -- a sort of love/hate relationship with the Fife author Iain Banks, something akin to an old married couple, where comfort is tempered by annoyance.

Stonemouth is his 14th work of mainstream fiction (he is also a highly regarded sci-fi writer under Iain M Banks) and his 28th published work in total. That's roughly a book a year since his modern-gothic debut The Wasp Factory lowered jaws in 1984. Occasionally, as with the throwaway Dead Air (2002), Banks's novels can have a sort of churned-out feel to them. He gets away with it because he is, quite simply, a dizzying talent, even if he doesn't always apply his gifts to their fullest.

His latest work sees him snapping the clapperboard by a misty town north of Aberdeen, entered via a suicide-friendly suspension bridge. It's "a pretty stable place really" thanks to the iron fist of the Murstons, a ruling crime family. "Enviably low knife crime, no shootings for years and while drugs are as easy to get here as they are anywhere, they're better controlled than in most cities or big towns... Of course it means the cops are technically totally corrupt, but what the hey; peace comes at a price," explains Stewart Gilmour, a typical Banks protagonist.

After fleeing Stonemouth for his life and remaining in exile in London for the past five years, Stewart returns to attend the funeral of the Murston's old patriarch Joe. That it was the Murstons themselves -- family boss Don and his three vicious sons -- who formed the initial lynch mob on Stewart means that he is re-entering the lions' den. He just prays that things have cooled off while he was away.

For the first two-thirds, little hints are sprinkled tantalisingly about what exactly went down, and it seems to have something to do with Stewart's engagement to Ellie, the town's Venus de Milo and eldest daughter of Don Murston. Before coming clean, he catches up with friends and foes, constantly looking over his shoulder while reassessing events from his formative years, all told with colour and mood by Banks, a master of the set piece.

What niggles is the author's insistence on making the 25-year-old Stewart such a know-it-all. This is something Banks can't help himself with; he'll fiercely research a complex topic -- poker tactics, football transfer windows, economics -- and then find an excuse to splice it into the plot superfluously, as if he just wants to show off.

His references to Tinie Tempah, Twitter, iPhones and smoking "Js" sound inauthentic, like a grown-up trying to be "down with the kids". Another Banks-ism is phonetics (what is it about Scottish novelists?), so be prepared for your flow to be broken by lines such as "Aye. Frae so fur back ah doot yir faither wiz burn".

But you can't stay mad at Banks's overly energetic approach to novel writing; he's just too good in other areas. He is supreme at nuanced dialogue, in all its poignancy, tension and whip-smart humour, even just within the realm of Stewart's chatty first-person narration. One of many examples sees Stewart comparing Powell Imrie, the Murston's feared hired muscle, to the Queen: "She thinks everywhere smells of new paint and he thinks the world is mostly composed of a respectful, terrified silence..."

Jocular, gritty and smart-alecky, Stonemouth is "very Iain Banks" and thus unlikely to really change anyone's opinion of the Scot. Maybe, at this stage in his career, that is its real shortcoming.

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