Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Iain Banks, and books out windows.

The great Scottish author, leftie and all round good yin Iain (M) Banks died last week at the far-too-cruel an age of 59. Much has been made in the press of his wonderfully wry April announcement that he was dying of cancer ("I'm officially Very Poorly"), his contribution to literary and science fiction, and the fact he thought the Tories could well, the story about the monogrammed t-shirt is a lesson to any leftie writer who makes it big enough for the book circuit.
Everyone apart from me seems to have met him. Usually in a pub.

I confess right now that I didn't read that many of his books while he was alive. A couple of the Culture novels, a few of the ones without the M on the cover, some memorable lines from Complicity and Player of Games sticking out like silhouettes on my personal cultural landscape amid half-buried narratives. But there's one book for which is a big reason why I'm still writing and for which I always thought I owed the man both a pint and some therapists bills.

I wish I still had my original copy of The Wasp Factory, Banks' first published work that came out the year after I was born. That copy is riddled with yellow highlighter and the margins infected with note after note, written in sharp black propelling pencil. I haven't seen my first copy in about a decade, but I still remember the braille feel of those scraps of thoughts on nearly every one of the 184 pages (I'm including the pages with reviews and the title). It's The Book. You know, the one that you read that changes things.

As an English assignment in what was to be my last year of high school, we had to select a novel and write a critical essay on it. As one of those alienated weirdo kids who spent too much time in the library and who took English seriously, I used the two-page suggested book list like I was food shopping. In the space of two weeks I read voraciously, that little list opening me up to novels and authors that I didn't know existed. I inhaled Brave New World, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Periodic Table/If This Is A Man, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Of Mice and Men, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and, uh the collected thinkings of Whoopi Goldberg (it was called Book). I came out of this orgy of ideas, politics and stories of human deprivation feeling simultaneously inspired, angry, depressed and cynical, and that was before I read Whoopi.

However, none of these great works (and I've since re-read them all, apart from Book) really resonated with me enough that I thought I could write a 2000 word report on it (how word count expectations change, eh?). However, my travels through the adult literature section led me to the B's, and a slim black-bound paperback with a cover that looked like Nine Inch Nails albums sounded. I have a copy of the same edition now, and reading the cover blurb again takes me right back to the brown carpets and beige shelves of that public library in Scotland:

"Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anyone in years and I don't intend to ever again.
"It was just a stage I was going through."
The moment when I saw the symbolism on the cover. Good god.

I read it in a day, sitting in a bright green box room. I remember it was a sunny afternoon when I read page 142, the sun low in the sky. I remember that because I vividly recall that the little black cover looked almost like a bird when I vehemently threw it across the room in horror on reading the end of the first paragraph (I just re-read it, hairs on my neck and bile in my throat rising in tandem).  Of the thousands of books I've read, that one paragraph is the only one to have caused me to react like I'd touched a live wire.

It wasn't just That Bit that caused The Wasp Factory to worm its way into my brain. I'd be doing the washing up years after the essay was written (top marks as you'd imagine; those notes in the margins were for something) and suddenly the image of a kite circling the world would fly across my peripheral vision. I'd look at the labels in my clothes and for a fleeting second consider cutting them out. For the first time in my life I realised the raw power of language and just what could be achieved with a well-timed punch to the medulla. Iain Banks succeeded where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn failed as far as one sixteen year old was concerned, and whilst I'm sure the comparison would leave him laughing into his dram, I'd like to think he'd appreciate the sentiment.

So here's to you Iain, you taught me more in a novel that's scarcely longer than the introductory preamble to some of the Big Classics on my shelves, and you taught my while making me want to throw your book out a window after setting it on fire so it could never get back in the house again.

Frank Cauldhame would approve.

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