Dead Air by Iain Banks
Little, Brown 2002
This novel isn't worth the time I've spent wondering if it's supposed to be a parody of London life or a snapshot of a certain period in London, or whether Iain Banks thought he was saying something really important.
First of all, it's everything I hate about the city I love and its "yoof culture" and its self-centredness, and its obsession with surface. When you get to the end of this novel, you'll find Dead Air is after all just a story about boy-meets-girl. But if you force yourself to read every single one of its 408 pages, as I did, you'll know that it's also a self-important tome about the narrator, Kenneth, who's a London radio DJ, and his politically-correct monologues about "issues", and the name-dropping of cool bands, and how he falls in love with an (of course, cos this is Lunnon innit) enigmatic mixed-race beauty who used to be a model and who's the wife of a gangster and who throws herself at him.
Ever since Cool Britannia, Londoners have prided themselves on their "stylee" and how they're classless and raceless and non-sexist. So Kenneth's pals are from all over the spectrum, like a gig promoter named Kulwinder who's married to a journalist/newsreader named Faye; and a spiky-haired band promoter named Jo who throws herself at him, and his friends' spiky-haired teenage daughter named Nikki who throws herself at him, and his ex-wife named Jo who throws herself at him, and his old schoolfriend's wife named Em who throws herself at him. What's got into all these women? Kenneth's charisma certainly isn't evident, not even in the clumsy bit where he describes what he looks like under the guise of describing what his old schoolfriend (the one whose wife he's shagged) looks like. More painfully, Kenneth has a driver named Ed who's black, so Banks has to write his dialogue phonetically: "'I got all them to fink of, an a career. I'm a bleedin businessman these days, know what I mean? I don't need the sorta people who never leave the ouse wifout a Uzi. I've seen what that leads to, Ken, an it's shit. It just does the job the cops an the racists want done for them. Fuckin ell; look at the States. Amount of black-on-black is fuckin heart-breakin, man the amount of bruvvers in jail an on def row is fuckin obscene.'" This kind of stuff goes on and on.
Banks is apparently so pleased with himself about this self-conscious authenticity that he even has Kenneth ring up Ed's West Indian mum ("'Be a lot more respectable than what he usually gets up to, what I hear. Robe is Yardie, Kennit. He dangerous. Too many guns. He's not welcome in this house no more. Ed don't see him that I know of.'") just so Banks can show how well he can write up the ambience. Just to rub it in, Kenneth later has a conversation with Ed about "Inglish" accents. Enough!
There's no subtlety here unless you want to count the mystifying snippets of "realistic" conversation Banks throws in at the start of chapters and which don't make sense even afterwards. What are these bits for? Maybe they're all part of that "capture-the-moment" stuff Banks could be aiming for (either sincerely or parodically) because there's no other reason for their existence.
Neither is there reason for the hugely obvious rants and "conversations" Kenneth has on all kinds of heavy political "issues". Even a lefty like me has a problem when the first-person narrator keeps going off all politically-correct and the other characters don't take the piss out of him after a while just to SHUT HIM THE FUCK UP. If Julie Burchill had written this book you'd think, "Yeah, typical Jules, can't write a novel without raving on," but the dustjacket says this is supposed to be 'Iain Banks' daring new novel' about Kenneth's 'wildy dangerous private life' among other things, and is 'Banks at his coruscating best'. It desperately quotes The Times as calling him 'the most imaginative British novelist of his generation'. On second thoughts, maybe the "issues" are to show what a liberal, broad-minded, desirable bloke Kenneth is that the enigmatic beautiful mixed-race former-model gangster's wife desperately wants to shag him in expensive hotel rooms all over the city. There's a cringe-making section (pp80-82) where the beauty meets Kenneth for the first time and tells him he's so brave on his radio show--and Chomsky gets dragged into it ("'You admire Noam Chomsky,' she said, nodding and stroking away another strand of hair from her mouth...'You have mentioned him a few times, I think.'"). The sex scenes are also embarrassingly unreadable--so significant and serious that you feel sorry for their author.
It's always amazed me (to use one of Burchill's phrases) how London radio DJs are somehow perceived as the epitome of cool. Only in Britain, I suppose. The Brits have had such restrictive broadcasting laws that only in the last ten years have any worthy licenced radio stations emerged--unlike, say, Australia, which has had licenced "alternative" radio (like Sydney's 2SER FM, Canberra's 2XX or Melbourne's 3RRR) for decades--and on which uncensored leftist polemic can be heard any day of the week without former models panting to bonk the announcers at the drop of the "Chomsky" word. Get real!
Was Banks in his right mind when he decided Dead Air was good enough to publish? Did he not realize how embarrassing and clichéd it is, like an old tosser trying to be wiv it, man? Did he think it was like worf it yeah cos it like had bits to do wiv 9/11 2001? Yeah, that's one of the horrible things about it. I'm no fan of the sombre reverence (the drivel about "unspeakable events", "worse thing since the Holocaust", "those who aren't with us are against us" etc) that's been spouted ever since that date. But even I draw the line somewhere--at a novel referencing September 11 2001 just to add resonance to the shallow plot. How bleedin' naff can a writer get? Does the cover of the book have show two tall smokestacks of the Battersea Power Station with a plane flying high over one of them? Even the title itself! (Geddit?) How ironic!
No matter how much I go on about it, I doubt if I could do justice to the wankiness of this book. I haven't read any reviews of it, so haven't the faintest idea if Iain Banks has been hailed as the darling of literary London or a genius of post-9/11 modernism or what. And neither do I give a toss. Because whatever his intention was, the result is awful. There are books to be written about Larndan, right, and stylee and music and clublife and Canary Wharf and where you were when you heard about 9/11 and suchlike--and the sooner the better, to get the taste of Dead Air out of your mouth.