14 September 2002
Iain Banks’s is a curious case. His self-imposed authorly rupture, whereby the mainstream quasi-literary novels are published under his normal name, while the science fiction is by “Iain M Banks”, has had the effect that, in recent years, the mainstream novels have been mostly stripped of the fantastical elements they used to display and become naturalistic romps. His most recent sci-fi novel, Look to Windward, was a joyous return to the excellence of his Culture series, highly intelligent political space opera stuffed full of jokes and rapturous cosmic imaginings. What can plain old Iain Banks do to keep up? His most recent mainstream novel, The Business, was an excruciating mess.
Dead Air is narrated by shock-jock Kenneth Nott, a commercial radio DJ who takes a swollen pride in his contrarian opinions. We first meet him in a drug-fuelled loft party in the East End of London, where everyone, for some reason, starts chucking fruit and furniture off the balcony. Ken’s girlfriend, Jo, does PR for a snotty young British indie band called Addicta; he is also sleeping with a woman called Celia (or “Ceel”), who happens to be married to a dangerous gangster.
You probably wouldn’t like to meet Ken. He is one of those hyper-annoying professionally opinionated people who are never off duty. Large portions of the novel are dedicated to expounding his reactions to the latest topics of media discussion, whether he is on air at the radio station or just chatting in a pub: gun control (“Guns for nutters only; makes sense”), American imperialism, CCTV cameras, Euroscepticism, the death of Diana (“put on a fucking seatbelt”), all get extended libertarian rants. It is a tribute to Banks’s chatty prose skill that these discussions are largely entertaining, if superficially argued.
After hundreds of pages of colourfully diversionary drinking, shagging and talking, Banks eventually remembers that he needs a plot, and so Ken does something unutterably stupid with a mobile phone: a narrative device so unconvincingly over-engineered that Ken is forced to spend three entire pages pointing out how incredible it is that someone could do something so moronic, with which the reader can only concur. But this is when the novel’s narrative engine at last rumbles into life, with the brilliantly managed tension of a burglary scene, and a final showdown seething with repressed violence.
But what, in the end, are we to make of this hero, who sleeps with his best friend’s wife (and very nearly his daughter), who is spectacularly insulting to all his friends (especially black DJ Ed, orthographically crippled by the author’s cringeworthy attempts to transliterate a south London accent), who is little more than a stereotype of the smug, self-obsessed media male, and yet who is allowed (and this isn’t spoiling much) to ride off happily into the sunset? What on earth does Celia, a mysterious, beautiful ex-swimwear model with a strange existential philosophy half-inched from a Murakami novel, see in him?
Having chosen to write the novel in Ken’s voice, Banks does not stake out any ironic distance between author and narrator, and indeed Ken often slips into the kind of fastidious smart-arsery that is familiar from other Banks voices. (His pillow talk consists of airy asides such as: “Oh, though there is that thing about the French calling it the little death, of course.” It’s the “of course” that makes you want to slap him.) Perhaps the problem is that Banks has not managed Ken rigorously enough as a dislikeable character, so that he is unfortunately prone to soft maundering such as “But then when we fuck, and I am lost in her, surrendered to those depths beyond mere flesh…”, while near the end of the novel, when things seem to be about to go very badly wrong, Ken suddenly cares deeply about the world’s starving children, about whom for 380 pages he has not appeared to give a toss.
Despite such inconsistencies, Dead Air is never less than an easy, enjoyable read — but that is part of the problem. Banks is such a naturally gifted storyteller — arguably the most talented of his generation — that for some years now he has been coasting on this ability, when he might have become a seriously excellent novelist. Dead Air has the feel of a story hastily cobbled together from a year of headlines, the feel of a dutiful contemporaneity — references to ice skating in Somerset House, and “crap like Big Brother” — that will date very quickly. Further editing, moreover, could have tightened up the prose, as with this nearly very successful sentence: “Somewhere beyond and beneath the layers of thick, dark curtains, London growled quietly to itself.” The image of London growling is lovely, but the two hesitations before its presentation (do we need both “beyond” and “beneath”? both “thick” and “dark”?) dilute its impact.
Looming over the whole book is the shadow of the al-Qaida attacks of last September: the opening party ends with the news of the World Trade Center collapse; and the dustjacket portrays a clever visual analogue of the event, with a plane flying over two chimneys of Battersea power station. But the novel does nothing with it; it is merely dramatically smoking set-dressing. One of the few direct references — when Ken refers to “the fundamentalist intensity of those who secretly guess they may well be wrong” — just seems spectacularly incorrect, the sort of comfortable liberal solipsism (no one can seriously think differently from the way we do, can they?) that a more sophisticated novel might have tried to anatomise. Even the pun of the title — dead air is radio silence, and also presumably something to do with using passenger aircraft as weapons — comes to seem facile. In the end the reader might sympathise with Ken’s long-suffering DJ partner, Phil. “Major rethink on format after the events of September the eleventh,” Phil says, referring to a television programme. “What a brilliant excuse that’s turned out to be, for so many things.” Indeed; and not excluding Dead Air itself.