I noted below
that I had occasion to wonder whether an author's political viewpoint could sufficiently intrude as to hamper enjoyment reading their book.
The first time this occurred to me was on reading John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener
. This putative thriller follows a Kenya-based British diplomat's investigation into the circumstances of his wife's murder while on "virtue duty". It has been said of Le Carre that he has laboured to find an appropriate milieu for his novels since the end of the cold war and that impression is reinforced by this poorly plotted simplistic tale lacking any kind of narrative tension or ambiguity and which pits plucky agents of virtue against evil "Big Pharma". It is clear that Le Carre craves the approval of the London literary media which still scorns him as a genre novelist. Perhaps he hoped that by making more explicit his left-wing political leanings he would be better appreciated.
I was reminded of The Constant Gardener, reading Iain Banks' Dead Air
while on holiday. Neither novels resemble each other and I have no reason to believe Banks gives a damn what the London media thinks of him. I enjoyed Banks' 2001 novel The Business
and Dead Air doesn't suffer in terms of pace or plotting in the same way as Le Carre's novel. It does, however, have two major problems. The first is the many ill-considered political views espoused by the protagonist which one can only assume, given how he is depicted, to be coterminous with Banks'. The second problem is one of tone: the "dead ear" demonstrated by Banks in the depiction of a number of characters and events. There are just so many "bum notes"
To deal with the bum notes first: The protagonist is meant to be a "shock jock" along the lines of Howard Stern and there are also similarities to Chris Evans and Chris Moyles. The catch is that one of his heroes is Noam Chomsky. It appears to be an unintentional irony that his supposedly contrarian views coincide with those of the contemporary British New Labour establishment. I'll get to some of those views later but it is clear that Banks intend this character to "say the things you really want to say" (that is if "you" are a middle class urban leftie). This punchy Scot leftie has a Moyles-like lager lad lifestyle and is drawn as a loveable rogue. It cannot be a coincidence that in terms of location, nationality, class, age and, presumably, political views he resembles the author. It is hard to know where to start with the jarring notes but a lot of them revolve around the character of "Ed". In introducing his characters Banks scrupulously uses secondary devices to describe their race. So when "Ed" first appears it is by an oblique and unnecessary reference to his skin that we learn he is black. This fastidiousness is remarkable given the crude racial stereotyping which later appears.
Banks reveals more about himself than anything else in his depiction of this "cool" club DJ and South Londoner. This cipher, speaking cloth-eared (and intrusively phonetical) dialogue, seems to represent for me Banks' fantasy cool black buddy - this friendship no less ridiculous than one between So Solid Crew's Megaman and Chis Tarrant - and is involved in the most cringeworthy of exchanges. Ed apparently wants to convert this chat show DJ - one sufficiently unenamored of dance music as to scorn the "n-chih n-chih" music which, we are informed, regularly spills from cars driven by "brothers"- to a proper Club DJ. Ed lives in two South London terrace houses knocked together with his extended family because "he hasn't lost touch with his roots". Ed explains to our hero how the words "wicked" and "bad" have been inverted by black people. 20 years after Michael Jackson's hit album, single and Michael Scorsese-directed video it is still apparently novel to a writer of Banks' stature that "bad" can mean good. As for "wicked", it is a long time since the playground replaced the "hood" as the most likely place to hear this word used to denote something desirable. The protagonist's toe-curling "teasingly flirtatious" conversation with Ed's mother suggests that Banks' knowledge about West-Indian women of a certain age is primarily gleaned from Lilt ads. At an outing to the London Eye with Ed's family the supposedly colourblind narrator notes the unremarkable fact that he is "the only white person" in the carriage.
As for the politics: the arguments are just powerpoint-simplistic.
• 9/11 = "you reap what you sow"
• Political correctness is just plain politeness (perhaps, given this shock jock's profession, the only contrarian view he expresses)
• Companies should look after the interests of their workers and consumers, not their shareholders (the economic illiteracy here - aaargh!!!!)
• Shareholding is immoral (ditto)
• Won't visit the US until "democracy is restored"
• Bush is evil and stupid
• Sharon is evil
• Israel oppresses the Palestinians and this leads directly to suicide bombing (in Banks' favour at least one character argues against all this "anti-zionist" posturing)
• Jews and Scots rule the world (this is a kind of "some of my best friends are.." type of argument)
In fact it is veritable litany of idiotarian thinking. Conor is reading Dead Air at the moment, I'd be interested to hear what he thinks.