About a hundred pages into this book I remembered with a start I was meant to be reviewing it. Instead of engaging with it critically and making notes of particularly enjoyable or significant passages, I was completely engrossed in pleasure. That kind of enveloping, visceral richness of evocative language, vivid characters, narrative that’s believable but somehow brighter and stronger than real life, should be what you expect from every novel. Reading this one shows it’s possible, but much too rare.
Iain Banks ought to be able to do it, of course. Including his science fiction he’s written 20 books before this one, and it shows. The story of Alban, estranged scion of the wealthy Wopuld family, emerges in layers of time and space, told in different voices. The only first-person voice is Tango, in whose Perth council house Alban is staying at the start of the book, but like a camera the narration follows different characters, giving us the world through their eyes. We start with Fielding, the cousin sent to draw Alban back into the family fold, and into the firm whose board game, Empire, has conquered the world in its own way and made them rich.
The nominal question the book asks is whether the family firm will sell up to the American Spraint corporation and finally relinquish control of the game, so it can become a global, multimedia phenomenon in the hands of a modern multinational. But it’s hard to care much about that question, especially as Alban himself and his newer friends and loves are so detached from it. What we want to know is how Alban’s emotional story will end, and what brought him to this point.
Like the master craftsman he is, Banks sets up questions for us, then leaves them unanswered while we explore Alban’s past alongside his future. The searing desires and social agonies of his adolescence spring to life, planting a seed of unrequited infatuation for his cousin Sophie. The book skirts round the dark tragedy of Alban’s mother’s death before finally telling the horrible story and raising another question – why?
So far, so good. Very good indeed, in fact. Until page 264. My frank advice to you is – read this book until the top of page 264, then stop. Go away and imagine for yourself what the answer is to Alban’s riddle, the dark secret the family hides. You won’t be wrong: it’s been flagged up pretty well. In case you’re interested, the family does sell up to the Yanks. And Alban gets the girl, the one he really wants.
That way, you will spare yourself the embarrassment of seeing a fine book lurch into undergraduate ranting. The half-metaphor, half-device of the British Empire making way for American dominance (which I actually thought happened decades before this book is set) gives over to febrile Yank-bashing. Some of this could be justified as the ravings of a character who is drunk and angry, but only just. We also get bizarre outpourings about climate change, delivered as if nobody had ever thought of them before.
All this would be bearable, but the plotting suddenly becomes risible, the dialogue schematic. The actions and motivations of the characters lose all their emotional truth. Pieces on a board game would move with more inner purpose. The ‘scientific’ explanations behind the plot’s big twist are wildly implausible, well below the level of understanding displayed in any popular newspaper, let alone the shrewd matriarch of a family business who is supposed to provide them. The overall impression is that Banks didn’t have time to finish the book, and left a teenager on work experience to complete it from his notes.
Do read Chapter 10. Banks gives the last word to Tango, who may be a bit of a stereotype, but tells you how the story ends. But spare yourself the preceding two and a half chapters if you want to keep the respect for Banks that he ought to deserve.