Thursday, October 18, 2012

the last book I read

Espedair Street by Iain Banks.

Daniel "Weird" Weir is a rock star. Well, an ex-rock star these days, but a ruddy great big globe-bestriding rock star in his day. These days he's living in a converted folly somewhere in Glasgow, having some low-key drunken adventures with various random blokes down the local pub (who think he's his own caretaker), pondering over The Meaning Of It All and trying to decide whether to top himself.

Back in the day, though, Daniel was the bass player and principal songwriter for Frozen Gold, rock legends of the mid to late 1970s. In addition to the multi-platinum albums and the sell-out gigs at the international enormodomes, Frozen Gold collectively managed their fair share of the obligatory rock star misbehaviour, from drugs to smashing up hotel rooms to more life-threatening stuff involving light aircraft. The band's eventual demise is brought about in slightly more mundane circumstances, though, when singer and guitarist Davey Balfour is electrocuted on stage.

The band splits up, Daniel knocks out an indifferently-received solo album, and retires to count his money and have everyone leave him alone. When one of the record company stooges contacts him to break the news that the band's other frontperson (and Daniel's occasional ex-lover) Christine Brice has been shot dead by a crazed fan in Ohio, Daniel decides that the best thing to do would be to kill himself. Cleverly picking a method which will provide him with plenty of time to change his mind, he decides to go to Iona and drown himself in the sea. Sure enough, on the way he has an epiphany in a hotel somewhere up the west side of Loch Lomond upon hearing someone playing some old Frozen Gold tunes in the room next door, and decides that maybe life is worth living after all.

So he heads back to Glasgow, signs away a large portion of his fortune, gives his old drinking buddy McCann the keys to the folly, and heads off north to seek out his old high-school sweetheart Jean Webb, having fortuitously run into her brother in Paisley and discovered that she's recently divorced. Hopping on a train to Arisaig, he asks around until he finds someone who knows her, and parks himself on her doorstep, hoping that she'll be pleased to see him.

This was Iain Banks' fourth novel, published in 1987, and it's probably the most orthodox and non-experimental of all the ones I've read. The rock theme is obviously one close to Banks' heart, as he's clearly a big music fan. Any book featuring the lyrics of imaginary rock songs skirts dangerously close to ridiculousness, though, especially as Banks is clearly a bit of a 70s prog-rock boy, and some of the lyrics do verge on the flowery in places. The general theme of - yes, drugs, sex, excess, playing the guitar on the beach while necking champagne, that stuff is all very well, but will it really make you happy? Hmmm? Really?  No, what you really need is the love of a good woman and the support of a close-knit village community, even if some of them are a bit churchier than you'd like - is all a bit on the cheesy side, even though it's all written with great charm.

Banks also has a repeated theme of people who have enough material wealth never to have to worry about any of that ever again, and how they nonetheless manage to find stuff to worry about: Daniel Weir here, Kate Telman and her cronies in The Business, the Wopuld family in The Steep Approach To Garbadale, and of course The Culture in general in the books Banks writes in his "M" incarnation.

Much of the rock misbehaviour and general incident in the book echoes (no doubt intentionally) real-life stuff: Christine's assassination after some ill-advised religion-baiting echoes John Lennon's, Davey Balfour's onstage electrocution echoes various similar incidents, Leslie Harvey of Stone The Crows in 1972 for one, and even Daniel Weir's nickname echoes the lyrics of David Bowie's 1972 hit Ziggy Stardust:

Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly
And The Spiders From Mars
He played it left hand, but made it too far
Became the special man, then we were Ziggy's band
"Weird" here refers to Trevor Bolder, who, like Daniel Weir, was a bass player. 

Further real-life interest, to me at least, is provided by the locations, Paisley in particular, since I spent a fair bit of time hanging out there with my ex-girlfriend Anne between about 1998 and 2002, as it was where her parents lived. So I have in fact been to Espedair Street, not that it's particularly exciting in itself. As it happens I have also been to Arisaig, or at least passed through it on the way to this remarkable campsite on the sand dunes, where we stopped off in order to facilitate getting the early ferry to Skye from Mallaig the following morning.

Anyway, I would rate Espedair Street more highly (among the non-M Bankses I've read) than Canal Dreams and The Business, but below The Wasp Factory, Complicity and Whit. You should probably start with those.

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