Friday, 31 October 2003

Iain Banks: Dead Air (2002)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2002
Review number: 1192

Published just about a year after 9/11, Dead Air must have been one of the first serious attempts at a novel in which the tragic events of that day played a part. That being said, it doesn't play that important a role in the plot, being more significant in the emotional background to the novel. It is hard to think of a novel that has survived any length of time which is quite so firmly rooted in identifiable and important near contemporary events; the best known examples I can think of are the panic about anarchists which prompted Conrad's The Secret Agent and Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday about a century ago. There are many more novels which were prompted by events which seemed more ephemeral even at the time and which are now only remembered because of the literature they inspired - the story of Alexander Selkirk which was the basis of Robinson Crusoe, for example. Usually, novelists seem to choose events which are far enough in the past that their importance is clear, if they want to anchor a novel to a specific historical time, or events which are so important and wide-ranging in their effects that time has to be taken to digest even part of their meaning - people don't tend to write the best war stories during the conflict.

The tone of Dead Air is set by the first chapter, in which a wedding celebration turns into a game of dropping superfluous foodstuffs and possessions from a loft apartment into the car park far below, wanton destruction which is interrupted as everyone's mobiles go off to tell them to turn on the TV and see the attack on the World Trade Center. The novel is full of small unexpected ironies, twists and unusual ways of looking at the world (picking up on the phenomenon of everyone's phone going off more or less simultaneously is an example). In Canal Dreams, Banks has written about people more directly involved as victims of terrorist attacks; 9/11 seems to have been an event which was more than usually able to touch those who were not themselves physically harmed.

The story is about "shock jock" Ken Nott, who makes a pretty good living being outrageous on a London radio station. There are several events which form foci to the novel as well as 9/11 - the difficulties which arise from a love affair with the wife of a gangster, a series of death threats, a TV interview in which Nott confronts a Holocaust denier. The plot does rather come across as the setting for Banks to get the series of rants which he makes the main feature of Nott's radio show out of his system.

Dead Air came across to me as the least interesting of Banks' novels to date; there is nothing in it which reaches out and grabs the reader (or if there is, it missed me completely). That is not to say that it isn't well written and enjoyable, more that it is less individual and unusual than his earlier novels.

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