Iain Banks is notorious for his graphic depictions of depravity in books like The Wasp Factory and The Bridge. Thom Dibdin found out that his latest book is not as nasty, well, not quite as nasty.
t was the day my grandmother
exploded.’ Iain Banks kick-starts his
latest mainstream novel with a typical
fulmination — no more than we’ve come
to expect from the mind which tortured
dogs and burned insects alive in The Wasp Factory, which manipulated madness to such lucid effect in The Bridge. The Crow Road, however, marks something ofa departure from the casual violence which pervades Banks’s science fiction, and which earned him pundit status when Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was published. Though still present, it is toned down, focused and controlled, bubbling up at unlikely moments in the narrative.
‘I was slightly nervous about that opening line, because it was so obviously attention-grabbing,’ admits Banks with a grin. ‘But it is a fitting overture for the book, giving you an idea that it is not going to be some gentle, subtle, elegant poem about adultery in Hampstead or something. It’s going to be a bit more exuberant than that.’ And exuberance is what you get. There is a Zippo-toting granny (when she isn’t exploding), there are fast cars, a conception in a graveyard, bizarre deaths, drinking, star—gazing and dope-smoking. Through all this wanders one Prentice McHoan, terminally cool in his nine-eyed Docs and black 5015, terminally cynical as he struggles to pass his finals, and terminally in love with the wrong person.
‘Prentice just sits there wondering where all the magic has gone,’ says Banks when we meet in The Guildford Arms - the sort of Edinburgh bar Prentice would claim to despise, but in which he would happily down ten pints or so of heavy. ‘In fact Prentice is surrounded by all these ludicrous things, but they are all completely explicable. Life is weird — that’s what he is learning throughout thebookf
You need to keep your wits about you when reading The Crow Road. It ﬂashes
back and forth through time as Banks reveals the darkly buried secrets ofthe strange family McIIoan. What starts out as a wryly observed novel about growing up in modern Scotland ends up as a thrilling quest to find out whether Prentice’s Uncle Rory is still alive or ‘away the Crow Road.’ Such complex structuring is a hallmark of Banks’ writing. though he says that for the first time he started out with no hard-and-fast plan for the book, what he did develop being
There is a Zippo-toting granny, there are fast cars, a conception in a graveyard, bizarre deaths, drinking, star-gazing and dope-smoking.
THE GROW ROAD
In this exclusive extract from lain Banks’s new novel, The Crow Road, the terminally cynical I Prentice McHoan is full of ; questions. Will the long-limbed Verity Walker ever notice him? Will his odious brother Lewis make it as a stand-up comic? Will he ever get rid ofthis hangover?
‘Yo; Prentice. Get you out of bed?’
‘Oh. you guessed.’
‘lt’s a gift. Pick you up at one?’
Umm . . . Yeah. Where are you, Lewis'.”
‘At the Walkers‘. in Edinburgh.’
()h . . . Is Verity there?’
‘Yeah‘. she’s coming.’
‘She’s coming; to Lochgair. Charlotte and Steve are off to the States this morning. skiing, and Verity—’
‘Skiing. to the States? Shcesh, that pack-ice gets -’
‘Shut up. Prentice. The upshot is
Verity’s going to be Festival Perioding with the Urvills. She’s ! going to drive us there.‘
And me insane. I thought.
‘Great.’ I said. ‘No Rodney?’
Lewis laughed. ‘No Rodney. Verity is finally a Rod-free zone.’
‘Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chapf
‘Agree grade and comments. See
abandoned about two-thirds of the way through. Nor did he have a precise idea of how the book would end. ‘I knew roughly. but usually I know exactly what’s going to happen,’ he says. ‘I guess that contributes to the momentum towards the end; it’s almost happening on its own devices.’
Before we met, Banks’ publicist had intimated to me that the novel was autobiographical. When I suggested as much, however, Banks looked horrified: ‘Oh God, no. It’s like newspapers — you shouldn’t believe anything publicists say. Unlike newspapers, they say it in the best faith. but no, I don’t do autobiography. Occasionally some sort of incident from my life might trigger something but I never use any person as a character.’ Banks does acknowledge, though, that several scenes in the book are inspired by his own childhood. A ruined castle, the setting for a childhood game ofhide-and-seek with Prentice’s father in what becomes a particularly chilling episode, was inspired by Levan Castle near Gourock, where Banks moved when he was nine. He is also happy to admit that the characters, up to a point, have something of himselfin them.
‘You have to identify with all your characters to an extent; there has to be a little bit of you in every one,’ he points out. ‘I’m never as articulate. as witty. successful with women, or as rich. There’s always some aspect that is exaggerated. Put in the same situation cold, I wouldn’t be half as witty as Prentice. But that’s one of the joys of writing: the things that come to you ten minutes too late. As a writer you get to replay the entire scene and then come back to that witty one-liner at exactly the right
The witty one-liner Banks is most notorious for— among the Edinburgh University class of9l , at least — is the one about wanting to be Rector so he could hang out in the bar seducing first-year students. He explains the incident by saying he was browbeaten into standing for Rector in the first place, before learning to his horror that he was up against Donnie Munro. who was
you thirteen hundred hours.’
‘Yeah; see you then.’ I put the phone down.
There was a dartboard above the phone with a picture of'I’hatcher taped over it. I kissed it. ‘Yeeeece-HA!’ I shouted. leaping back into the bedroom.
‘Shut up, Prentice.’ Gav moaned. mufﬂed. from his bed. He was invisible under a heap of duvet. My bed was on the other side of the room, away from the window. and so not quite as cold as Gay’s in the winter. I fell into it. bounced. (Technically I should have Norris’s solo room because I’ve been in the flat longest, but that room’s small and noisy; also Gav doesn’t snore and he’s quite happy to retreat to the living room couch ifI have female company. . .That’s anotherthing; there’s only room for a single bed in Norris’s room). ‘Put the heater on. ya bastard,’ Gav mumbled.
I leapt up, ninja’d over to Gay's
8The List 27 March — 9 April 1992