Monday 10 March 2008

Iain Banks: The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

Published: Little, Brown (2007)

My impression on reading The Steep Approach to Garbadale was that it was more a mixture of elements and ideas from Iain Banks' previous non-Culture novels (that is, those published without a middle initial) than a new story in its own right. The Wopuld family are rich on the back of a Victorian boardgame, now a successful computer game, but they are as dysfunctional as the Simpsons. When the novel opens, the protagonist, Alban, whose mother was a Wopuld, is estranged from the family and living on a Scottish council estate, not too close to the family's Highland estate at Garbadale. His problems with the family (and vice versa) started when his uncle and grandmother (the matriarch of the clan) found him having sex with his cousin Sophie, both being underage. The book, half flashback, tells how this happened and how the rest of Alban's life was affected (obviously Sophie's was too, but she is not the centre of the novel), up to the climactic event of the novel, an extraordinary general meeting of the Wopulds (as company shareholders) to decide whether to sell the company to an American corporation that wants to take over the game.

Comparing The Steep Approach to Garbadale to earlier novels, there is the anti-American-Imperialism, anti-Iraq War sentiment of Dead Air, with Spraight Corp perhaps partly a symbol of American domination: the real winner of the game of Empire!. There is a Scottish family with dark secrets, like the one in The Crow Road (and Alban is a very similar character to Prentice McHoan). The tone of the novel, the affluence of the characters and the corporate politics are like The Business. There are even links to Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory.

There is a balance to be struck by any writer who has a career more than a few novels long, between offering something new each time and retaining the familiar elements which are part of his or her style. Usually, there is a fair amount of variation between Iain Banks' novels (ignoring for the moment the series of science fiction stories with a shared background published with-an-M: challenges for a writer who sticks with a single series are rather different); more at the beginning of his career perhaps, but still some change in recent years. This time, there is nothing really recognisably new, and the re-used old ideas seemed to me to be somewhat too intrusive, almost as though a lack of originality were being flaunted at the reader. One particular problem was that Alban failed to grab my attention as a protagonist: the biggest difference from Prentice McHoan is that he's not as interesting.

So The Steep Approach to Garbadale is likely to disappoint long term fans of Banks' work, but there is much to enjoy in the novel particularly if read in an uncritical spirit.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (An Enquiry into Values) (1974)

Published: Vintage, 2004.

I have been intending to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for over twenty years, but have never got round to it until this February. Though famously influential, there are still surprisingly few books at all like it, with its combination of fictionalised travelogue and philosophical speculation. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, which aims more at teaching the basics of philosophical thought rather than taking a polemical approach as Pirsig does here.

The narrator tells the story of a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, initially with friends but eventually just with his son Chris. This kind of trip obviously provides a lot of time for solitary thought, and the narrator does just that: musing about how philosophy relates to the world around us. To the narrator, the journey is also about finding and at the same time escaping the person he names Phaedrus (after a character in one of Plato's Socratic dialogues). Phaedrus turns out to be his own self, the university lecturer who suffered a breakdown and had his mind almost wiped by "Annihilation ECS", also (and to me at least, better) known as electroconvulsive therapy.

What fascinated Phaedrus, and continues to interest the narrator, is the difference - indeed, conflict - between two ways of looking at the world. The "Classic" mode is intellectual, analytical, reductionist and concerned with underlying processes; while the "Romantic" mode is emotional, artistic, holistic and concerned with surface beauty. Pirsig seems to overstate broadness of the division between the two: I would say that most people probably use a mixture, depending on context (a sports fan is likely to be more analytical about a football game, for example, but might respond to music on an emotional level, not really sure why particular songs appeal to them). It does seem reasonable that background, education and personality would make most of us use one mode in preference to the other. Phaedrus sought to bring back unity between the two viewpoints by giving the concept of "Quality" pre-eminent status, the idea being that everyone can recognise "good work" on a non-rational level and so gain an understanding of the thought mode which is more alien to their personality. Pirsig spends quite a lot of effort on the argument that Quality is non- (or more accurately, pre-) rational, but does not convince me. I think it probably can be analysed, though any analysis would need to take into account factors such as culture and personality which influence an individual's recognition of Quality on a subconscious level. Leaving that aside, the one thing I did not find clear about the philosophical discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is just how the concept brings about a union between the Classical and the Romantic. It's obvious that "quality" is an element of both, but then so are other concepts (beauty, for example).

As the title suggests, much of the philosophical speculation is illustrated with reference to motorbike mechanics. The mechanics is rather more simplified than the philosophy, but it is Pirsig's big selling point and leads to some nice clear exposition. The references also underline a major point of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which is that philosophy should underpin the way we act in everyday life. (Of course, it is easy to argue that it does, albeit unconsciously, but Pirsig obviously means something more deliberate and, indeed, life-changing.) A drawback of the use of mechanics to illustrate his points is that it sometimes makes the key idea of Quality seem very closely related to the Protestant work ethic: put something into everything you do and you will produce Quality outputs.

The most novelistic aspect of the book is the psychological journey made by the narrator, retracing the footsteps of his former self with an increasingly reluctant companion. The tension builds well (even if the philosophy is likely to deflate it every time it is introduced, for many readers) to a final scene which, according to Pirsig's introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition which is reprinted here, has been frequently misunderstood over the years. As Pirsig points out, the narrator of a story has the opportunity to paint himself in a favourable light, which means that nothing he says about himself (or his alter ego, Phaedrus) can be taken at face value. But even if the reader ignores this advice, it seems to me that it would be quite hard to feel that the narrator is a nice person, particularly considering his behaviour to his son. Phaedrus is rather more congenial, though his obsessive search for philosophical truth might make him a rather disconcerting person to spend time with. The ending still feels a little contrived to me, but this is partly because it is the kind of event that seems to mark an end rather than because it is intrinsically unconvincing.

In the afterword, Pirsig describes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a "culture-bearing" book, using a term derived from a Swedish word which has no direct English equivalent. What this means is that it appeared at the time of a cultural shift, and by being a head of the curve, became incredibly successful as a result. I think this is perhaps undervaluing the book: people did find their lives changed by it, and it has continued to find a readership ever since. In other ways, it is a good description of a book which is very much of its time, something which is probably an important reason for my feeling that the philosophy was less than convincing. (The other book Pirsig mentions as a culture-bearer, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is similarly not going to be as effective now as it was when it appeared, because the issues it addresses are less in the mind than they were then.) While it remains a fascinating read, particularly to anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is no longer likely to change your life.