Saturday, April 11, 2015

the last book I read

Dead Air by Iain Banks.

Ken Nott - né Ken McNutt before he de-Scottished himself a bit - is a radio DJ on a popular London station, a station owned by an aging rock star entrepreneur type who also owns an airline, if you're following me. He's styled as a "shock jock", but of a slightly more cerebral and less lurid kind than people like Howard Stern; Nott's thing is more about unfettered political discussion, sticking it to The Man, telling it like it is and to hell with that political correctness nonsense, that sort of thing.

Ken's ranty shtick has gained him a wide audience and made him into something of a minor celebrity, something he has gleefully exploited to get into the pants of a whole series of women, including his current girlfriend Jo, a punky type who works for a record company, but also including a few ill-advised bunk-ups with wives of close friends, and a series of liaisons in posh hotel rooms with the exotic and enigmatic Celia, who turns out to be married to a guy called John Merrial, a notorious London gangster and the sort of man you really don't want to get on the wrong side of, particularly by repeatedly fucking his wife.

So when a bit of promising-looking flirting with a mysterious female admirer in a late-night bar results in Ken getting his drink spiked and being whisked away to some unspecified East London location, he has some cause to wonder which of the many people he's pissed off is responsible. For what exact purpose the whisking was done we never discover, since Ken manages to rouse himself enough to punch his erstwhile lady friend in the kisser and escape out of the cab window.

It turns out, some time later, that this incident was nothing to do with the shadowy Mr. Merrial at all; instead it was cooked up by some other shady character who was keen to have some traffic charges (for an incident where Ken was a witness) dropped. So that's a relief. But, never a man to sit back and savour his chips when he could be pissing on them instead, Ken makes an unwise phone call after a night out getting spectacularly drunk, and ends up leaving an incriminating message on Celia's landline answering machine at the London house she shares with John Merrial.

When Ken phones Celia's mobile in panic he discovers that both she and John are (separately) out of town for the day and there's just a slim chance that he can avert disaster by breaking into the house, erasing the contents of the tape, and then getting the hell out again. Yes, there are alarms and locked doors and all that stuff, but Celia can talk him through that. As if it weren't already complicated enough, though, Ken's phone battery is low, and he's got the mother of all hangovers.

As remarkably successfully as the break-in goes, considering, Merrial inevitably finds out about it (who'd have thought a major gangster might be paranoid enough to have CCTV?) and so the scene is set for the climactic scenes whereby Ken is whisked away again, this time by professionals who aren't going to let him escape, for a nice little chat with Mr. Merrial. Can Ken's quick wit and silver-tongued talky skills get him out of this one?

Dead Air was published in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which feature tangentially in the plot and are clearly the inspiration for a couple of Ken's rants (either on-air or in the pub, since he's one of those guys who doesn't seem to have an "off" switch), not to mention being the inspiration for the cover image on my paperback copy. Other than that they're not really central to the plot; one of the reasons for this is that there is almost no plot to speak of. Apart from the attempted kidnap incident (for wholly contrived and implausible reasons) about halfway through, the only real action that occurs is the break-in to the Merrial house, which commences around page 360 of a 430-page novel. The panicked attempt to get to an answerphone to erase a message before it's heard has a strong 1980s sitcom feel about it, to the extent that you can almost imagine it happening in speeded-up motion with the Benny Hill theme playing in the background. It's a trope that featured in Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency as well, and no doubt countless other places.

Ken Nott is clearly an authorial alter ego, and a pretty transparent one at that, his job providing Banks with a convenient mouthpiece for some fairly facile anti-Bush and anti-religion diatribes. It's a bit of authorial wish-fulfilment having Ken's ranty articulacy make him strangely irresistible to women, too. Ken is also, with his penchant for drink and drugs, something of a retread of the Cameron Colley character from Complicity.

The basic problem with Dead Air, a bit like its immediate (among the non-"M" mainstream fiction, anyway) predecessor The Business, is that despite being written in Banks' engaging style, and therefore being very readable, nothing of any great significance actually happens, and it's therefore difficult to see what the point of it was. This Guardian review suggests that maybe he gradually came to find the separation between the wildly imaginative science fiction strand (as "Iain M Banks") and the mainstream fiction stifling to the latter. It's certainly true that while The Business (1999) and Dead Air (2002) are not especially great, the M-branded book between them, Look To Windward (2000), is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Dead Air is the second book in this series to feature the events of 9/11 as a plot device, the other being Falling Man.

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