Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh, two of Scotland’s more high profile, successful and influential novelists, have published new work in the last couple of weeks which look back to previous successes. The review of Welsh’s Skagboys will appear here shortly, but it is interesting to make a very superficial comparison between that and Banks’ latest non sci-fi novel Stonemouth. Both men have been criticised for overly repeating themselves in their work, and they have, to differing degrees, embraced and addressed those critics in these books. But whereas Welsh has returned to the scenes and characters of his greatest triumph, Banks has openly embraced the whole.
Skagboys follows the early lives of Renton, Sick Boy, Franco Begbie et al, perhaps in an attempt to reboot a writing career which has creatively stalled over recent books. With Banks’ Stonemouth it’s slightly different as his last mainstream novel Transition was seen as his best non ‘M’ title for some time. The problem with that was it was really a sci-fi novel in mainstream garb. Nothing wrong with that, his earlier novel Walking on Glass is a similar cross breed, but he did seem to be prolonging the worries of those of us who were seeing if he could recapture former glories after the disappointing The Steep Approach To Garbadale, Dead Air and The Buisness. Stonemouth sees a writer back on top form, and embracing his past to promise an exciting future. Banks feels essential again.
There’s often a book in a writer’s career where you can sense them relaxing and accepting who they are, what they do, and why people read them. Some of my favourite writers who have accompanied me through different stages of my life have recognisable themes which were not only desirable but demanded by readers. I’m thinking of Stephen King, Ed McBain, Alasdair Gray and John Irving in particular. There’s a comfort in embracing the familiar as long as there are enough fresh ideas to accompany them, the trick is to be able to use these themes to tell tales in new and interesting ways. Stonemouth sees Banks at his most engaging and this is because it will thrill his fans rather than confounding their expectations
He certainly seems to be deliberately embracing his past, enjoying ticking his tropes off as they appear on the page. In the early chapters there’s a bridge, class divisions, family fueds, a reference to a trauma from childhood and an exotic woman who once held the promise of a better life, and who may do so again in the future. Few capture the importance of the formative years on an individual’s development as Banks does. There’s lots of violence and ‘claret’, misunderstandings, family secrets, an older, wiser, character, and individuals who are not as they first appear to be. Later on there are a few direct references to his current political concerns but these are less jarring as they have been in other novels, and they seem to fit the central character of Stewart Gilmour rather than simply coming from the mouth of Banks, something which he has been accused of doing in the past.
Gilmour returns to his home town of Stonemouth after enforced exile, allowed to attend a funeral by the local family of gangsters who chased him out of town in the first place for doing them wrong. Set over the weekend of the funeral, with plenty of Banksian flashbacks to fill in the gaps, the writer once more examines the past to help the reader, and his protagonists, understand the present. As the title suggest, it’s the things that are never said that often cause the most problems. It’s not a case of je regrette rien , more je regrette … well just about everything, and I think, if most of us are being honest with ourselves, this feeling is one we understand even if we don’t admit it.
There are a couple of things which jarred with me while reading Stonemouth. Banks’ pop culture referencing, something he is normally excellent at, seems to me a bit scattergun in terms of what and when. The chat moves between drinking snakebite and bottles Staropraman , referencing Kylie, CSI and Bones, and the audio benefits of expensive earbuds. I may be being overly sensitive here but I find it hard to believe these are consistent terms of reference used by these characters, and it’s often such small things that can make you pull up short in a novel. It doesn’t spoil matters, but grates with a cultural pedant.
Another accusation that Banks has had aimed at him is, with the obvious exception of The Wasp Factory, he often has trouble ending his novels concisely and in this case, when the action is over, the forgiveness and rebuilding of lives feels rushed. I can forgive him this as what has gone before is so engaging and compelling (and often beautifully written, something which often gets overlooked when people review Banks). The final paragraph seems particularly poignant and reinforces the feeling that this is a writer who is comfortable with his past and who is looking forward to what he does next. He’s not the only one.
If someone asked me for the best place to start with Banks I always suggest The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road or The Bridge but I would add Stonemouth to that list. I have written before that Banks’ novels seem to reflect how he is feeling about life in general at that time and it does feel as if this is a writer who is content with his lot. I hope this is the case because when you look at the fantastic body of work that Iain (M) Banks has given us, he deserves to be.