“Dead Air” by Iain Banks (2002)

Leave a comment

Dead boring...

Dead boring…

“You’re breaking up.”

This blog seems to keep coming full circle as I return to authors that I first read towards the beginning of my time here. The Wasp Factory was one of those first books and, despite myself and despite the content, I really enjoyed it. Thinking I’d try Banks again for a similar experience, I got hold of Dead Air, but the results were not to be repeated. Here comes one of those rare but sometimes necessary things: a bad review.

Dead Air is the story of Ken Nott, an opiniated leftie radio DJ whose job exists continually on a knife edge as he keeps on saying things on air that land him in trouble. Off the air, his life is just as complicated. His girlfriend Jo is becoming more and more distant, he’s just started an affair with the wife of a London crime lord, and at least one attempt has just been made on his life. This all takes place against the backdrop of September 11th, which has just happened, changed the world, and shaken up everything we knew to be safe and true.

The plot (such as it is) is uninteresting and takes so long to kick in that you really can’t get a good enough grip on it to care very much. All the actual story doesn’t happen until the last ninety pages or so. Before that, Banks has gone for the rather novel approach of forgetting to tell a compelling story to having the main character simply rant about anything and everything he chooses to, from music to immigration. It’s hard to tell exactly how much overlap there is between Ken’s views and Banks’s views, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s 100%.

Ken is not a likeable protagonist and while that sometimes works, here it simply doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, a liar and a cheat, who seems to suffer little mental anguish for the hurt he causes other people (although perhaps, in fairness to him, he doesn’t often let them know what he’s been doing, to save them from that hurt). The other characters are flat and there simply for Ken to rant at, while they butt in with further comments to fuel his ranting. I’m not denying that the rants contain some very well-written language, because some of them do, but there are just too many of them. This isn’t a novel – it’s Banks attempting to share all of his thoughts with the world through an unpleasant mouthpiece.

Granted, there are some excellent red herrings thrown into the book and you can be certain about why something is happening, only to have the rug pulled from under you a few chapters later. However, the book overall was a disappointment. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the blurb on the novel’s back places emphasis on the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, but in actuality this is merely wallpaper to a story that’s trying very hard to be modern but already, just twelve years later, seems out of date. It claims to be a thriller, but it is not in the least thrilling.

I’m sure Banks is an excellent author – I know he can be – but this is most certainly not one of his best, and it has made me wary.

“The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks (1984)

1 Comment


Oh. Oh no.

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”

Despite what I’m doing here, I’m not one to read reviews, especially before having read a book. After I’ve finished one, I will spend some time seeing what other people thought of it, what they liked and if they thought the same as me. In particular, I do my best to avoid any reviews of people who make their money from reviewing. It seems to me that they also think it’s part of their job to insult and pick holes in whatever they’re reviewing, be it a book or a restaurant.

The Wasp Factory was given to me with the warning, “You have to read this. I can’t promise you’re going to like it, but it’s very memorable.” I realised not long after starting that there were actually some reviews in the front of the book, so I did a quick scan. And then read them all. Excerpts include:

“There is something foreign and nasty here.”

“Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.”

“There is nothing to force you … to read it; nor do I recommend it.”

“A repulsive piece of work.”

“The majority of the literate public … will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

Basically, this is a book that seems so sure of itself that it is willing to fill the first three pages with negative reviews. Considering that Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks as he is known to science fiction readers) is now considered one of the best writers of the last century. This was his debut novel, and there’s nothing like entering the scene with a crash, which is exactly what he did. The book was controversial at the time, and remains so now, nearly thirty years later.

The blurb alone warns you that this is not going to be a particularly happy read, telling as it does that the narrator has killed three people, and is just sixteen years old. These deaths are later played out in complete and gory detail within the story, although they are probably the parts that are easiest to read. If you are in the least bit squeamish, you shouldn’t even consider this book.


Pictured: the novel’s most sympathetic character

There isn’t a likeable character in here, not one that you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with for three hours (possible exception to be made for Jamie the dwarf). Frank, Eric and Angus are all lunatics, living on a secluded Scottish island, each wrapped in a cocoon of secrets, both against the outside world and each other. With twists you shouldn’t even try to second guess, the book, while disgusting and shocking, is one that keeps you going, although there are some chapters that shouldn’t be read over lunch, as I discovered to my own cost.

Frank is a keen abuser of animals, a trait he appears to share with Eric who, it is claimed, set fire to dogs before he was sent to a  mental institution. Dogs, however, are not the only animals here to find themselves getting the abuse. The titular wasps get it, as well as other various insects, rabbits, gulls, crows, hamsters, mice and even an adder.

If you enjoy being shocked, want to read the literary equivalent of a video nasty, and have a strong stomach and a mind capable of living with the knowledge of this book for the rest of your life, then by all means try this book. It isn’t bad, in fact, it’s very good, tightly constructed and well written, but I don’t feel I can properly recommend it out of a sense of duty.

If you aren’t into this sort of thing, then go and see Les Miserables again, and I’ll be back here when I’ve read something a little more innocent.