Sunday, 25 October 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are...Stonemouth by Iain Banks.

What if you were not the main character even in your own story?  The tyranny of the first person narrative in a novel always creates problems for the author.   In his last ever novel (sadly) The Quarry Banks used the voice of a teenage autistic adult.  Although the tone was quirky yet precise there was no question that the story in a sense centred around him because of the care he required.  Yet in general the first person approach is very risky as everything is seen through his or her eyes.

This was the main theme I took from reading Stonemouth - on the face of it a fairly slight addition to the wealth of Iain Banks' collected works (fiction and science fiction).  For the narrator here (throughout) is  a mid 20 year old young Scotsman  Stewart Gilmour- around 30 years old younger than the author- establishing himself in the adult world but in many regards still a naif. The book is timebound and covers a three day period  (albeit with fairly lengthy and quite cinematic flashbacks)when Stewart returns to his hometown which gives the book its name in the North East of Scotland for a funeral.

The funeral is of a patriarch of one of the two criminal families(the Murstons) in the small town and it marks the first return for Gilmour to the town for five years.  But this is no welcoming return for the Fisher King knight following his quests and adventures across the world.  The exile was imposed on Stewart as he cheated on his fiance the week before his wedding with a brief sexual liason in the toilets.  The problem being his bride to be was the daughter of the Murston clan  (Ellie)and his paramour in the cubicle was the daughter of the rival clan.

Ellie has a lot of brothers so as Stewart returns to the scene of the crime with a little (not much) more maturity there are lots of masculine confrontations over the weekend.  And of course he sees Ellie for the first time in 5 years - will they reconcile? And she has a little (prettier- working as a model) sister who has always caused mischief. So far so meh...

The triviality of these issues - a couple getting engaged far too young  then breaking up because of the silliness of one of them - is not helped by Stewart's voice which is also young and gauche.  He is a talented art school graduate who is surfing the neo-liberal globalised world as a "lighting consultant" to the world's uber rich.  Yet he shows no real awareness of this.  In fact unusually for Banks there is no clear political context of the book.  Even other fiction of his which are family sagas (the Crow Road - which this seems a dim future echo of- or the Steep Road to Garbadale) make some significant comment on the times in which they were set.

Maybe that's the point Stewart Gilmour is of the time - mid 20s in the late 2000s born in the 80s - no real political compass, no musical or artistic references (again something Banks uses in most of his work) - obsessed with his mobile phone.  But it does mean the work itself runs the risk of being all those things as Stewart is the narrator's voice to accompany us through these few days.

And yet and yet there seems like there is something more to this book.  The warring families,links with the Glasgow criminal underworld the unexplained death of one of the Murston boys, a bridge that acts as a magnet for suicide dominating the town's architecture.  In another writer's hands this could have been a very different (much worse) work - a study of the Tartan Mafia, family feuds - a pot boiler of crime fiction which seem to dominate the book shop shelves and the TV channels (funnily enough this has been made into a BBC drama which I haven't seen -starring inevitably Peter Mullan as the ganglord).

Stewart seems a pawn in all of that of which he only very latterly becomes aware.  He is off stage for all of those developments but in male egoist fashion puts himself at the centre.  I was reminded a bit of a couple of scenes from the first Austin Power movie where anonymous henchmen who are killed are given backstories.  This is funny because heroic narrative only really allows one perspective.

Thus the everyday love story of Gilmour with Ellie is focused on - as all romantic love is ultimately personal - whereas the drivers of the "plot" happen elsewhere.  This all sort of comes together by the end in quite a shocking way - as does Stewart's lack of awareness - but the naive narrative of the 20 something  itself always seems on the edges,
A telling quote from the book I think comes from Ellie's sister over his self created conspiracy theory that he was maybe set up to be caught in the toilet (aye right!) "Maybe it had nothing to do with you at all Stewart? Maybe you were just collateral damage? Maybe you were just used?"

Perhaps I am reading too much (geddit!) into the work which flows pretty smoothly and could pass over you in an enjoyable way with no lasting impact.  It is difficult for me to say that this will be the last Banks I ever read because I have completed all the other works and he is no longer on this planet.  But I think he was hinting at these ideas as he has explored the issue of solipsism in fiction in other works - notably Transition.

Of course there are some beautifully written scenes - in particular outlining a traumatic childhood incident (although this again seems a little bit beside the point)- and the art of having a consistent voice is skilful.  Banks at this point has been writing for over 30 years. The geographical sense of the North East is also well done as his eye for detail - the gangster recovering from his Disco Wii session sticks in the mind!

So this work provoked some thoughts in me on the nature of narrative and character.  But overall a simple coda to an impressive body of work.

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