A Book Ian Likes: Espedair Street by Iain Banks

Daniel Weir was going to end it all. As the songwriter for one of the most successful bands in rock history, he feels that his recent life has been meaningless and useless, and that the world would be better off without him. So he decides to tell the story of what happened to make him feel like doing away with himself and why he then changed his mind…

Espedair Street was Iain Banks’ fifth novel. It followed the ridiculously successful space opera, Consider Phlebas (written under the almost-impenetrable pseudonym of Iain M. Banks). As a follow-up to a Hard SF blockbuster (and, seriously, if you haven’t read it, you really should) it’s an interesting choice. Tonally, Espedair Street is also a very different novel to anything he had written previously.

For a start, he’s telling the story of someone famous. Banks’ experiences of the previous couple of years probably influenced this part a little: his meteoric rise to literary rock-stardom is similar to what Daniel (known to the general public as “Weird”) and his bandmates in supergroup Frozen Gold went through. Weird explains in an early chapter that he was expecting a tough career with a lot of hard labour and heaps of disappointment to achieve even a couple of his dreams: to become overnight successes was beyond all his expectations. So it was for Banks: his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, did the rounds of publishers for a few years before it was published to instant notoriety. His following novels (Walking On Glass, The Bridge (possibly his very best novel of all) and the aforementioned Consider Phlebas) were all published to increasing levels of acclaim. He also began living a life of rock star excess, including owning a stable of increasingly powerful cars and various other accoutrements of the suddenly nouveau riche.

So it isn’t hard to see Banks in Weird: the absurdly talented outsider trapped in a socially awkward frame, living a life like some sort of holy fool and finding that the trappings of success are, ultimately, taking him away from his real, creative work. There’s also an added resonance to this idea when you consider that Banks wrote a lot of the songs that Weird talks about in the novel, several of which were later produced for a 1998 BBC radio adaptation (which I haven’t listened to… yet) and received a generally positive reception.

Weird reacts to his success and the tragedies that go with it by retreating into a shell: in his case, a faux-gothic mock church that he lives in, and by associating with a few new friends who he has – he thinks – convinced that he’s just the caretaker of for a stupidly wealthy rock star.

In true Banks fashion, though, it all comes undone, and Weird has to pay for his success and for his need to be in control of his work…

I’ve been a fan of Banks since the paperback release of The Wasp Factory in 1985: I was initially attracted by the similarity of our names, then by the three pages of alternately praising and damning press clippings at the front of that edition, and finally by the strangely compelling not-quite-horror story (I’d heard of “gothic” by then but I’d never knowingly experienced it) of that debut novel. I put him aside for a few years, though, until I discovered The Bridge in 1990 and then I felt a need to catch up on everything that I’d missed out on. His new novels then became an annual treat until his unexpected death in 2013.

But what is it about this novel that is so good?

Well, when I read it, I was a callow 21-year-old, just coming off my first ever genuinely, truly broken heart. I also fancied myself as an artistic type (amateur theatre was my jam at the time), so it wasn’t hard to identify with the ungainly, awkward hero of this tome. I was also experiencing the first twinges of difficulty with my university course (with hindsight, I can see that they were the first twinges that I was genuinely concerned about, as opposed to the actual first twinges) so a protagonist who lazes about doing nothing while being moody about it was highly attractive (I didn’t really worry about the whole “being-ridiculously-successful” first part of it, to be honest). It also told its story in the wonderful fashion that Banks made his own: the gradual unfolding of two stories – one in the present and one in the past told through alternating chapters – which became a trademark of a lot of Banks’ novels, most devastatingly in Use Of Weapons a few years after this one.

Fortunately, though, the novel stands up to the test of time. Daniel is a likeable character. He makes mistakes, he isn’t as good or as worthy as he wants to believe he could be (part of the reason that we find him contemplating suicide in the first place is because he blames himself for a particular tragedy that he and the reader learn about quite late in the novel). But he’s ripe for redemption and he makes a few grand gestures in the name of putting things right which should – hopefully – pay off. He also has his heart in the right place, despite his brain not quite joining it there on occasion.

However, it’s the idea that it’s never too late to make up for lost chances that drives the appeal of this book. Daniel finds that his life has probably peaked way too early. As mentioned above, he envisioned a much more traumatic journey to some version of stardom and he worries that debts might be called in, or that things will have to eventually be accounted for, or that his run of luck may eventually trickle out. There’s also a message that creativity shouldn’t be cut off or wasted: Daniel has no purpose for a large part of the present-day sections of this novel and his aimlessness reflects that: when he begins a new project near the climax, we want to cheer for him because he’s the most driven and passionate that we’ve seen him in these sections. It’s also the rare novel that genuinely explores how music – or any kind of art, really –  can be a catalyst for the soul. And it’s also incredibly funny: Banks had a wickedly dark sense of humour and it really comes to the fore here. Whether it’s Daniel’s friend McCann’s story about the fight he got into, or the Three Chimneys Race or even the occasional superb throwaway line, this is a funny and moving novel with a lead character who is as frustrating as he is challenging.

And I really want to listen to that soundtrack someday.

You can find out more about Iain (M.) Banks at https://www.iain-banks.net/

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