The Business: A Minor Banks

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So I finished The Business by Iain Banks last night, proving once and for all that I can read a dry book from cover to cover if I really wanted to.  So a dry Iain Banks book, I did not expect that. I was blown away by The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory and this was one book that surprised me in its dryness.

Now what is dry? I don’t mean that it was too dense or academic (it wasn’t), the book simply failed to pull me in or captivate me, and it was work to get through. Dry is also a lack of plot in that it talks too much of the universe (or in this case, The Business) and the settings and the characters like they are mere caricatures in the grand world the author created, without them really doing anything. The plot only picked up at about page 175 and the mystery element that was masterfully presented on the first chapter was sadly underused.

Looking back, I was never really convinced that there was much of a plot to be had. There was too much contemplating that the “plot” became a bit too tenuous to follow, then the last 50 pages struggled to dump all the details together leaving the mystery poorly explained at the end.  It felt rushed, with having so much potential in the first few chapters, to having almost no meat. It’s like a lost opportunity rather than a fully formed novel.

It lacks the emotional weight of The Crow Road, and the thrill and mystery of The Wasp FactoryThe Business is perhaps Mr. Banks’ weakest book ever.

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Iain Menzies Banks

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You must’ve heard the news. Scottish author Iain Banks has been diagnosed with late stage gall bladder cancer, and he has informed everyone that he may be taken from us in a matter of months. This announcement came to me a few hours after I knew of a dear friend’s passing – Mommy Sylvia has gone into the good night last week, also from cancer. The pain that cancer brings hits very close to home. The grief of knowing the impending loss of someone you love is very real to me, and this early grief can sometimes be more terrifying and disabling than the pain of finally losing your beloved.

I am gutted to hear about Mr. Banks’s diagnosis to an almost embarrassing degree. It’s odd to be so distressed over a stranger’s health but Iain’s works have been a great consolation to me on my darkest days. I picked up my first Banks novel (The Crow Road) while I was beside my mother’s hospital bed. There are still many things I do not understand about death, but Prentice McHoan taught me the universality of loss – that there is nothing unfair about death, and people dying is merely part of how the universe works. The great side effect of growing old is outliving people, and I was glad to have Iain’s Prentice teach me about things I couldn’t, or refuse to understand while my brain was muddled with angst and anxiety.  

The Crow Road‘s darkly comedic take on heart-rending grief was the first book last year that really, truly healed me. Under wonderfully woven words is a writer who looks through you and understands you. He sees the world and brings it to you with his works.

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Right after The Crow Road, I picked up The Wasp Factory which is a novel of a different and darker caliber. This man has a way with words that will have lasting effect on you. I was making my way to some of this other mainstream novels (I have Complicity and The Steep Approach to Garbadale on my shelves), and finally on his works as Iain M. Banks (novels I have not read but have placed on pedestals), when this happens.

But Iain Banks also taught me that there really is no finality in death. There is no final page. The characters he has brought to life will stay with me for a long, long time and his legacy of outstanding literature will outlive every one of us.

Thank you so much for the stories, Iain. I will try to do you some of the honor you deserve by retelling them.

We continue in our children, and in our works and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash. Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.

Banksophilia: Friends of Iain Banks for updates and best wishes.

The Wasp Factory: Our destination is the same in the end, but our journey – part chosen, part determined – is different for us all.

TIL I have a pretty low tolerance for written grossness.

After the excellent The Crow Road, I picked up another one of Iain Banks’ famous works: The Wasp Factory. I didn’t know what to expect. Well, that’s a lie. I expected it to be a science fiction piece (again) and I was wrong (again).

The Wasp Factory is a first person narrative by Frank Cauldhame – a 16-year old Scot who is quite… odd. Odd is a pretty underwhelming adjective to describe Frank. That boy is fucking sick. And his world, or at least how he sees and describes it, is so dirty and strange and, well, horrifying.

Despite the grossness, I had to give props to Mr. Iain Banks for such powerful prose. The writing was splendid (for the lack of a better adjective), and his deadpan humor for both TWF and TCR has propelled him on top of my list of favorite authors ever. What an excellent writer, and my god what a sick and twisted mind!

The way he wrote and the amount of animal cruelty and grossness in The Wasp Factory made me physically ill. It also didn’t help that we had lots of meat to eat the day I finished it, which is the day after I started it. Yep, I read the darn thing for less than 24 hours. The novel was quite short but that is still a feat for my tiny brain. It was very engaging and you never quite know what to expect. I gasped many times while reading the book and there are images in it that will, sadly, be etched in my mind forever. 😦

I know it might seem like I didn’t like the book but I did. Really. There aren’t a lot of novels so far that has affected me quite as strongly as The Wasp Factory did. It’s best to not know anything about the book before and while reading it, but if you love and are as involved with the written word Iain Banks wonderfully put down as much as I was, you will definitely want to know how everything ends.

Don’t eat while reading this though. It won’t end well for you.

P.S.

I found a gem of a review from the Irish Times when The Wasp Factory was first published:

It’s a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity.

I laughed.

The Crow Road: What did any of it matter, in the end? You lived; you died.

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I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t have liked this book as much as I do if I read it at a different time in my life. In Scotland, going away the Crow Road means to die, and death has not been as potent a theme in my reading years as it is right now; and I strongly blame this dark cloud of loss and despair for how much I loved this book. I’m not saying that The Crow Road isn’t good on its own (it is!), it’s just that current mental states often deeply affect how you experience a book.

The Crow Road famously, and quite beautifully, begins:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”

The Crow Road is my first foray into the world of Iain Banks and I didn’t expect it to be mainstream fiction (I don’t like using that term but I don’t like using “non-genre” either). I know Mr. Banks from the Culture series and I expected some straight-up SF in this book but The Crow Road is a beautifully woven masterpiece about a family in Gallanach, Scotland written mostly in Prentice McHoan’s first person point of view. Prentice is your typical male protagonist who transitions from being an irresponsible teen to fledgling adult through booze, religious debates, failing grades and sarcasm. He is very relatable.

Being The Crow Road, the book is filled to the brim with themes of death – from an unsurprising death of an old loved one, to an unexpected and quite hilarious way for an atheist to go, to unrequited love, suicide, etc etc. The book was also wrapped beautifully with a charming piece about passing away, the non-existence of an afterlife, legacies and vanity through death and many other facets of loss that made me see the many ways to experience death and the passing of loved ones in a novel, and sort of refreshing way.

I’m not very good at reviewing books (and everything, in general) but The Crow Road flows beautifully and its prose, though at times verbose, is beautiful and full of witticisms. I highly recommend it.

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