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.


rayna said...

I will never buy an Iain Banks book again. I don't wish to be subjected yet again to his irrational vehement anti-American rantings which he feels impelled to insert into his increasingly repetitive and boring novels. He thinks Americans deserved and should have expected what happened on 9/11.

Zanna said...

Well written article.

Simon McLeish said...

Thanks for the praise!