In Charge of the Tuck Shop

Sam Thompson

  • The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
    Little, Brown, 390 pp, £17.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 316 73105 8

In interviews, Iain Banks has said that his new novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale was first imagined as a fantastical tale of multiple realities, in which characters would find themselves magically trapped inside a board game. The novel he has written instead is a family romance, set in the UK in 2005, and the board game it features is safely non-magical. But it seems fitting that we should know about both versions of the novel, the written and the unwritten, because Banks has always liked to play the naturalistic off against the bizarre. His third novel, The Bridge (1986), begins with the unmistakeable Scottish landmark of the Forth Rail Bridge, but transforms it into a surreal world.

The protagonist of The Bridge has crashed his car on the way into Edinburgh, and finds himself an amnesiac, trapped in the enigmatic, hierarchical community that occupies an improbable giant bridge. The bridge is also part of the coma-dream from which he struggles to wake. And it is in a sense the fiction itself. With three major sections joined by linking spans, the structure of the novel mimics that of the Forth Bridge, so that as it ends the protagonist emerges from his imaginary world to the reality of his hospital bed, having made his crossing.

This sort of intricate, puzzle-like fiction is characteristic of Banks’s early work. Since then he has written in, or at least around, all sorts of popular genres, from serial murder mystery to family saga to quasi-poetic fable, as well as the formidably inventive space opera he publishes as Iain M. Banks. The books have in common a distinctive controlling personality (genial, analytical, eager, not very serious), libertarian views, a boyish love of fast vehicles and violent death, and a taste for surprises. The devious plotting is a significant part of what Banks fans turn up for; but sceptics might want to suggest that too much formal dexterity is the central problem with his work. It is certainly possible to feel that in a Banks novel narrative fluency overwhelms everything else, with characters and events jerked along by the requirements of storytelling.

Hair-raising twists and grim revelations turn up so often in his best novels that they start to hint nastily at a worldview: we may actually be plot-driven creatures, nothing but the utterances of a structure. This has been the built-in burden of Banks’s plots ever since his first novel. In The Wasp Factory (1984), 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame affably narrates a life spent on a remote Scottish island, torturing animals, killing children and elaborating a grotesque private system of magical thinking, and all because as a toddler he was castrated by a bulldog. But at the novel’s dementedly happy ending, he learns that this defining mutilation never took place: he is not a neutered boy, but a girl who has been lied to and fed hormones by his, or her, father. ‘My father’s truth has murdered what I was,’ Frank says after all has been revealed. ‘But I am still me; I am the same person, with the same memories and the same deeds done, the same (small) achievements, the same (appalling) crimes to my name.’ Selfhood is at the mercy of the narrative twist: the kicker is that the twisted self persists, to savour the insight and wonder what to do about it.

Alban McGill, the central character in The Steep Approach to Garbadale, is another such puzzle to himself, though he has given up trying to solve it. He has turned his back on his family, the Wopulds, a large, tightly-knit clan that also runs a highly profitable business; their wealth comes thanks to a Victorian ancestor who invented a game called Empire!, in 2005 ‘still the UK’s best-selling board game, by some margin’. At the age of 35, Alban is reeling from a summer twenty years before, when he and his cousin Sophie had a brief affair. It ended in discovery, disgrace and enforced separation; now, instead of being a high-earning globetrotter for Wopuld Ltd, Alban works as a forester, keeping no fixed abode, nursing his wounded obsession with Sophie and thinking of himself as an exile from his life. He is finally drawn back to the family when he learns that it is on the brink of selling out to an American corporation, and his cousin Fielding persuades him to return and rally opposition for a decisive emergency general meeting at the Wopuld estate of Garbadale in the Scottish highlands.

Meanwhile, in the past, his mother commits suicide. We watch her choose a coat in the cloakroom at Garbadale and follow the course of the river to the loch, filling her pockets with stones as she goes, then wade into the icy water. Her physical sensations and flickering thoughts are patiently attended to as we gradually come to understand what is happening:

The gently sloping shelf of the loch bed ends here; she walks off the hidden underwater cliff with a tiny surprised cry, bitten-off, and vanishes immediately under the brown waves, her auburn hair sucked down at last like fine tendrils of seaweed, leaving only a few bubbles which float briefly and then burst and vanish.

In the present, the prose is freewheeling to the point of unruliness – jumping tenses at will, and detouring readily to expound on artificial intelligence, garden decking and climate change – but it becomes disciplined and even devotional when detailing these scenes from the past. When Alban meets Sophie for the first time at the family property in Somerset in an idyllic 1985, he is smitten, if pessimistic – ‘The rest of the summer, he could just tell, was going to be about never getting anywhere near this fabulous creature’ – but soon enough he is worrying about questions of etiquette: ‘Maybe he should have a wank first; when they did it properly he’d probably come really quickly and that would be frustrating for her, wouldn’t it?’

In 2005, on the other hand, these vital details have hazed out into nostalgic cliché. Alban frets over ‘the need to be accepted, somehow, some time, by his girl in the garden, by his lost love, by Sophie’, but because Sophie is his structural principle, he has failed to notice that she has her own life. Years after their affair, he realises that ‘all this time, in all this thinking about her . . . he just pictured her as the same girl she had always been, but stopped, frozen, paused, something caught in amber.’ Alban is being plot-driven, mistaking Sophie in this way.

Alban’s present-day love interest is Verushka, a sexy oddball, a gamine mathematician who always dresses in black, drives madly fast, climbs mountains in rainstorms, and has survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. To begin with she comes across as a straightforward fantasy; she is ‘the lovely Verushka’, here to invite Alban into his present life, and sharpen the perversity of his nostalgia for Sophie. Although the narrative voice remains characteristically vivacious, expansive and unable to keep a straight face, it also dips promiscuously into the free indirect speech of practically everyone it touches. That way characters like Verushka gain space to move, and chafe, at least slightly, against the tugs of plot and structure.

If these characters are struggling to get free – of the constraints of plot, of the past and its determining effects – then, in a way, they are acting out the political point that Banks wants to make. Empire!, a game of global conquest from the grand era of British imperialism, is about to be assimilated by the empire-builders of corporate capitalism: the real problem, it seems, is that the nature of the system has not essentially changed, and that no alternatives are available. Everyone who counts, Alban says, is ‘playing by the rules of capitalism as they’re currently written. It’s a pity that, the way these rules work, they have the effect of putting the fat boys in charge of the tuck shop, but that, for the moment at least, is what we’re stuck with.’ It is another sort of oppressive structure from which we need to struggle free.

Alban certainly thinks so, and opposes the sale of the company ‘purely because of the politics of it. Resist imperialism, whether it’s military or cultural.’ Like most of the protagonists of Banks’s fiction, he vents plenty of invigorating, and quite openly authorial, liberal spleen on any topic to hand. He is furious about climate change, religious fundamentalism, the war in Iraq and American foreign policy in general. ‘He’d probably been too political, too self-indulgent, but when else was he going to get a chance to say stuff like that to an audience willing to listen?’ he says to himself after a passionate address to the Wopuld EGM. Nothing very controversial is said: the point seems to be that it can never be said too often.

When Fielding tells him that ‘history is finished . . . Capitalist democracy has won and the rest is mopping up,’ Alban replies: ‘Bullshit. You need to read more science fiction. Nobody who reads SF comes out with this crap about the end of history.’ Much of Banks’s own science fiction features an anarchist paradise called The Culture, a galaxy-spanning, ‘post-scarcity’ civilisation in which everyone harmoniously does just as they like, thanks to transcendentally high technology, infinite productive capacity and the benign supervision of prodigiously powerful artificial intelligences. It reads as the utopian solution to the wrongs that enrage Alban, an alternative set of rules by which humans might play. No wonder science fiction readers are right-thinking people – they have seen the answers. But the problem, back at the beginning of the 21st century, is that there is no obvious way of getting there from here. The other side of SF utopianism is something close to despair, with Alban denouncing the shortcomings of the present: ‘Stupidity and viciousness were rewarded, illegality not just tolerated but encouraged, lying profoundly worked, and torture was justified – even lauded. Meanwhile the whole world was warming up, getting ready to drown . . . Everybody should know better. Nobody did.’

The Steep Approach to Garbadale provides, as Banks fans should expect, an engineered, plot-twisting resolution: the mystery surrounding Alban’s mother’s death is solved, a dark secret about his birth is duly revealed, and unsuspected relationships and conspiracies come to light. But the puzzles and their solutions are partial misdirections in this case, because the novel seems a good deal more interested in the irretrievable pasts it has evoked, and in the landscape of north-west Scotland, to whose description it keeps returning. Once Alban has discovered the secret his family has been keeping, he vanishes from the novel without fuss, as though he was always a function of his story; but in a brief final chapter, we see him from a distance, having left Garbadale, as though to remind us that the structures open to the fresh air.