Saturday, August 23, 2008
by Iain Banks
I have a tendency to buy books much faster than I can read them – just ask my girlfriend how much space is taken up in our apartment by piles of unread books. Since I’ve started my new job though, I’ve had a lot more free time on my hand, and consequently I’ve been able to devote much of it to reading. In addition to reading recently acquired books, I’ve taken this opportunity to “clean house”- that is, finally make my way through the books that have been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I picked up “The Business” while living in Baltimore a couple years ago. There’s a wonderful not-for-profit in the city that collects unwanted books and provides them, free of charge, to whomever wants them. It’s called the Book Thing, they have a website at www.bookthing.org. I suggest that you stop in if you’re ever in Baltimore.
But as I do with most things I enjoy, I tended to abuse the Book Thing. Bringing home a box of yellowed paperbacks may sound fun, but there were many books I took that I don’t think I realistically envisioned myself reading even at the time. In was on one of these binges that I picked up Iain Banks’ “The Business.” Right before moving back to New York to finish my undergrad, I purged most of the books I just couldn’t justify keeping. “The Business” survived that purge. Iain Banks had actually come to me with a high recommendation. I’ve heard good things about “The Wasp Factory,” and his Culture novels, written under the name Iain M. Banks, are supposedly sophisticated looks into capitalism and technology. I hadn’t read anything by Banks prior to “The Business,” but the premise seemed promising.
The book follows Kate Telman, a Level 3 executive in the Business, a shadow capitalist venture that has possessed considerable world assets since the Roman Empire. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Business is that they are not one of those clandestine, all-powerful cabals so popular amongst conspiracy theorists. The machinations of the Business are indeed spectacular – they include the development of an independently financed space base and the acquisition of a small nation in order to obtain seats in the United Nations. But the Business is decidedly more down to earth than, say, anything out of Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” or Robert Anton Wilson’s “The Illuminatus! Trilogy.” This allows Banks to offer more focused criticism and helps differentiate his book from other “airplane reads,” though this book unfortunately does feel like a paperback bestseller in the worst senses of the word. More on that below.
The novel opens with Mike Daniels, a Level 4 operative, calling Kate after having his teeth forcibly pulled out the night before a strategic business meeting with Kirita Shinizagi, an important Japanese interest. Kate suggests Mike try to find a Business-employed dentist to replace his teeth before his flight takes off. The Business does find Daniels a dentist, but in Daniels’ own words, “… zhere washn’t time to do anyshing. I shtill look like a footballer.” The Business can’t do anything, and I like that about the book, it enables Banks to be much more imaginative and correlate the far-flung actions of the book to the real world. The Business doesn’t trade in wish fulfillment – it comes close, but the Business is just that far away from omnipotent to be interesting.
The above-included quotation also highlights one of the dire weaknesses of the book – its dialogue. Phonetic dialogue rarely, if ever, works. Instead of imparting something of the verbal flavor of a character’s speech, it usually looks sloppy and arbitrary. Banks uses just such short passages of unaccompanied dialogue throughout the novel. These sections are usually heavy on humor. He structures them either as phone conversations between Kate and one of her friends, or instant messages. The entire conversation between Kate and Mike Daniels that opens the novel plays out through dialogue without any accompanying speech tags or descriptives. Now, I feel as if this is meant to highlight Banks’ fluency with speech patterns, but he doesn’t really pull it off. The dialogue actually makes the characters seem much less intelligent than their job would require. I rarely actually believe that these people possess the skills necessary for their vaunted positions. The humor almost trivializes these character. It just doesn’t click.
Following the above-mentioned conversation, we are then introduced to our main character, Kathryn Telman, through bald-faced exposition. She is “…a senior executive officer, third level (counting from the top)…,” and also one of the youngest people ever to reach that level. The reader is force-feed this information. Banks does not make his prose count and thus it tends to feel rather flimsy. The weak and cluttered prose that manages to be wordy while also feeling light is what ultimately links this novel in my mind to books like “Foucault’s Pendulum” or “The Illuminatus! Trilogy:” books with intriguing premises bogged down by a tendency towards simplistic pop philosophy, bestseller tropes, weak characterization and bloated prose. At 472 pages, you would expect a lot to happen in the novel, but it doesn’t, really. Instead, the novel barely gets anywhere, despite traveling to a variety of exotic locales – the Himalayas, California, the Mid-West, Switzerland, a British mansion. There is a lot of talking that occurs in each location, but the dialogue doesn’t move the novel forward quickly enough, nor do I feel that the point of the novel is the talking in and of itself. So what we’re left with is a lot of flab.
What exactly are the terms under which the novel can be read? How does the reader approach it? The book alternates between overlong passages occurring “in-scene” and unwieldy sections where the reader is handed chunks of pertinent information. Exactly who is Kate, as our narrator, talking to? She dryly reads us her stats- “For the record,” one of the many weak linguistic tropes Banks uses that dilute the prose, “I am one point seven metres tall, I weigh fifty-five kilos, I am thirty-eight years old, I have dual British/US nationality, I am blonde by birth not bottle….” Ah, and that brings up one of the issues that persisted in nagging me throughout the book, and which seems to have been glossed over by every review I’ve read of “The Business:” Banks’ weak handling of a female perspective. Whether intentional or not, his portrayal of gender comes off as sloppy, if not misogynistic.
Telman frequently mentions how she looks, as well as her age, noting “I looked pretty good; better than I had at nineteen.” Now, I would be able to concede how frequently Kate contextualized herself in reference to men, if not for other instances that are not so easy to explain away. Uncle Freddy, an older man in the Business who helped raise Telman, feels her up occasionally. This doesn’t trouble Kate much though, and she even makes light of it, mentioning her “…occasionally fondled, but assuredly never abused butt…” The flippancy of this remark troubles me more than the act itself. Uncle Freddy does, as Kate points out, come from another time when something like that had a different context, but it doesn’t even seem to phase Kate, and her making light of the fondling appears flighty and discredits a character who we’re supposed to sympathize with and admire for her independence and progressiveness.
None of this troubling gender portrayal is resolved acceptably, as the high-tech, corporate thriller angle which is initially set up as the novel’s focus, falls to the wayside as it is revealed that the book actually hinges upon Kate’s love life, and ends with her getting married. This left me disappointed. I wouldn’t call Banks misogynistic in his portrayal of women – just sloppy. It’s not that Banks writes his women as simpering or inferior to the male characters. Telman frequently bests the males veering for power around her, and there is even an important scene towards the climax where Kate out-maneuvers Adrian Poudenhaut by threatening the safety of his new Ferrari – an instance where Banks satirizes masculine stereotypes. It’s just that by novel’s end, Kate falls back upon her “womanly guile” to get what she wants in a manner that discredits both her and the author of the book.
The book occasionally veers into compelling discussions of capitalism and ethics. These are my favorite moments of the book, and are what elevates it at times above your average airplane read. The Business is not, despite how predisposed I am to see them as such, portrayed by Banks as an insidious shadow agency. He seems to believe that a progressive, humanitarian capitalism can indeed exist. One character insists that “the people who deserve to will get out of their deprivation, they’ll rise above any goddamn social disadvantagement…” This is, of course, a highly suspect view of how capitalism works, and as quickly as Banks introduces it, he attacks it. Kate supposes it is through capitalism that humanitarian should blossom. For her, “Fairness is an idea, and only conscious creatures have ideas. That’s us. We have ideas about right and wrong. We invent the idea of justice so that we can judge whether something is good or bad.” That’s a nice idea, but…
I don’t quite agree with Kate that capitalism has the ability to successfully manage itself – Kate believes that the checks and balances set up by the Business will remain in place and successfully prevent dehabilitating corruption. The Business is set up to allow just the tolerable amount of corruption to exist and then purge any excessive abuses of power. That Hazleton’s and Poudenhaut’s plans to embezzle from the Business are thwarted by Kate at the end of the book is Bank’s argument for such. I don’t agree with Banks, per se, but if more of the novel was devoted to a discussion of these points, and less to questionable gender politics, I would have enjoyed it more. I am willing to grant that this is a weaker novel by Banks, and may in the future give one of his Culture novels a chance, but as it is, “The Business” turned me off Iain Banks, at least for the foreseeable future.