International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Our
Air by Iain Banks
Publisher: Abacus; New edition edition
(3 Jul 2003)
Banks is not necessarily the obvious choice to pick as a writer
who embodies the spirit of our times. However, after reading his
novel Dead Air I found him to be a prime candidate.
book focuses around Ken, a shock jock on London commercial
radio station Capital Live!, who finds himself increasingly
imperilled by his dangerous lifestyle. Affairs, drinking, drugs
and his controversial views, as well as the odd bit of well meaning
good citizenship get him into a lot of trouble with his boss, past
and present girlfriends, angry London gangsters and his best mates.
Whilst Ken and various
guests are dropping inanimate objects of the balcony of an eighth floor
party, planes are hitting the Twin Towers. Within minutes every ones
mobile phone are ringing to gossip about the shocking news and the television
is switched on to watch the aftermath. From this rubberneck
moment onwards Iain Banks captures, through the cynical eyes of Ken,
the epitome of now.
There has been plenty of fiction produced post 9/11 which is set around
the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre or some similar event.
However, Iain Banks novel side steps this whilst still highlighting
it as a key moment of the 21st century.
It is Surprising (when considering the title) that after the opening
chapter, where Ken finds out about the attack, Iain Banks does not pursue
this as a main plot thread. Life continues as normal. It is only the
thin tendrils of post 9/11 paranoia which creep in to the narrative.
As Ken says, when discussing how the public have become more suspicious
on the tube, "People have started eyeing each other; especially
anyone carrying anything
big enough to be a bomb".
The plot seems to move, not because of, but in spite of global terrorism.
Iain Banks looks more at the effects, such as the medias caginess
to deal with the issues of reporting the events on radio, the effects
on the public and the general climate of Britain after the events, without
getting wrapped up in the hysteria of it. Perhaps this is because, like
many of Iain Banks previous characters, Ken is originally from Scotland
and sees himself more as an outsider looking in.
By noting these little changes which appear to have happened to England
over night Iain Banks captures perfectly a snap shot of every day Britain.
He also creates a picture of the British relationship with America.
If the planes had been flown into the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia
would we have given it as much media coverage?
However, it is not just the above which makes Dead Air irrevocably the
here and now of the 21st century. It is the way that Ken as a broadcaster
lives and works. Iain Banks successfully contextualises our time period
through the voice of Ken on his radio shows. This is done with mentions
of the IRA threat from the 70s to the 90s, commenting on
the now familiar removal of bins from train stations. Kens radio
tirades also cover the Israeli/Palestine conflict which although has
been going on for centuries is just as relevant now as it has ever been.
He even comments on his scepticism of those who are against the EU,
or as he calls them Europhobes, and the infringement of
CCTV into personal freedoms; all very current issues today.
A lot of Kens personal life seems symptomatic of modern culture.
For instance the tabloid journalism which follows him from home to work
(Diana is mentioned), the frustrations of advertising on radio (as well
as a hint at the joys of an advert free BBC) and his resistance of the
growing influence of Sky as part of the effects of increasing globalisation.
His recreational activities of drugs and sex are also very of this time.
Maybe not so much in the context of the novel, as this rock and
roll lifestyle has become normalised over the last 40 years, but
more because of the extent that Iain Banks can openly write about it.
The book does cut out a lot of day to day living, jumping from event
to event swiftly, but that is only what people in the present do to
the past anyway. Iain Banks is, while creating an enjoyably thrilling
novel, nicely condensing our present in his own way for the future to
read. Maybe Iain Banks will not be the Dickens of the 21st century but
you can be sure that his dog eared novels will still be squashed up
on the dusty book shelves of fans for many years to come, both for this
generation to wistfully thumb through and for the next generation to
take some lessons from.
Graham January 2009
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