Stonemouth by Iain Banks

“Clarity. That would have been good.”

To begin with, I want to say this book was read in honor of the author who died earlier this month. God bless his soul.

Moving on, I would like to note that Iain Banks is credited as one of the best authors of his generation. From the very beginning, I can understand how this analogy came to be. His writing style is simple in itself, but at times marveling, beautiful, and moving.

This is a story about a man coming back to face his past, whether he wants to or not. It’s about the opening line, clarity in what is and isn’t.

 “One of the main mistakes people make is thinking that everybody else is basically like they are themselves… Conservatives – right-wing people in general – tend to think everybody’s as nasty – well, as selfish – deep down, as they are. Only they’re wrong. And liberals, socialists and so on think everybody else is as nice, basically, as they themselves are. They’re wrong too. The truth is messier.”

The whole story has a bleak, foreboding feel to it, one that I adored. This is a really dark book, rife with drug usage that many times isn’t condemned, and excessive use of profanity, almost as bad as a Scott Lynch book.

I’m not saying vulgarity shouldn’t be used in fiction, I’m just saying Banks may have went a little overboard. Whereas Lynch uses his cursing for humorous effects, Banks uses it for tone. For some reason, I’ve never truly accepted tone as a viable reason for twenty curse words a page. And yes, everything from the f-word to the c-word is used multiple times in the span of conversation. It was off putting, to be truthful.

But surprisingly, the drug usage wasn’t as bad.

He presented both sides of the argument, a friend who’s an avid drug user, and an ex-fiancé who’s family runs a drug empire while she works in rehab.

See, Banks had a habit of preaching to the choir in this novel. If you’re a devout, religious person, this book will definitely not be to your tastes, evident by my hesitation to like it. The narrator, a twenty-something guy coming back to his hometown in northeastern Scotland, is agnostic, stated at one point, but I would argue is full blown atheist.

Truthfully, it’s annoying to read such blatant stuff from a great writer, a respected writer I might add. Granted, my track record on this stuff isn’t so great.

Simply put, is it too much to ask for subtlety nowadays?

I digress…

One positive Banks can do that I’ve never seen pulled off before is end a chapter on “he says.” I firmly believe that if you end a chapter with dialogue, you don’t use tags to end it. Stop with the speaker’s words. Banks doesn’t need this advice.

While the prose was very enjoyable, the present tense took a while to delve into. Just a minor inconvenience.

“I have stood in gatherings far more opulent and distinguished, more monied and glamorous, in London and elsewhere…and felt something of the same corrupted disdain for those around me. It’s a fine, refreshingly cynical feeling…but as much as I distrust it in principle and hate it for its unearned, faux-patrician snobbery, I relish it, almost worship it.”

One more complaint I had is the pace. It’s a slow, brooding style, which works for the novel, but the lack of not knowing where we’re going made me dawdle some. Literary fiction aside, the work was well balanced in terms of writing.

Characterization, though, is where he hit another high mark. Every person, whether it be my favorite drug-using jokester Ferg or the awkward narrator Stew, seemed well-rounded and true to themselves. The banter between the two mentioned characters was hilarious at times, and I always looked forward to their conversations. Ferg may be one of my favorite “friends” in literary fiction.

Ellie, also, was a very strong character, one that grew throughout the novel. She changed my perspective of a typical whore who has commitment issues to a truly broken woman. When the three of them were together, Banks could write a really amazing scene.

But I think my favorite scene has to go to Wee Malky. His time at the mansion playing paint-ball has to be one of the most haunting moments I’ve ever read about. Truly stunning tension and resolution. Disheartening as well.

But when it came to other action scenes, Banks had a habit of falling flat. At the climax, the final fight is wrapped up with one long run-on sentence. While it tried to be mysterious, the whole thing was a mess of confusion and jarred me, like the iPhone references.

Not to say he doesn’t write tension like a master. Seeing as who he is (or was) I can say that’s no big feat. But thrillers aren’t always deemed great, even by literary fiction standards. And it seems subtlety was too much to ask for.

But the view from the suspension bridge was to die for.

Rating: 7.5/10

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