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REVIEW

Iain Banks'
Dead Air


Scots novelist inserts 11 September asides for cash...
What do you mean you haven't read The Wasp Factory? It may have been topped since (at least in terms of cruelty to wasps) by Alan Warner's The Man Who Walks, but it's still a profoundly unsettling read about identity confusion and casual psychopathy. Iain Banks has written some good novels since (especially The Bridge and Complicity) and a load of sci-fi that I'm told people like. Anyway, you can't have missed displays of this new one if you go anywhere near UK bookshops, with its cover's striking grainy image of two of the Battersea Power Station chimneys an impression of the Twin Towers.

Dead Air is a diverting yarn - a lively tale that gets bowel-clenchingly tense towards the end, about a likeably fallible Jock shock jock Ken Nott, who (among other misadventures) falls for the wrong woman. No, it's not about 11/9 at all, save for the symbolic destruction of some stuff in a flat in chapter 1, and a few references here and there. I'll refrain from suggesting Banks crowbarred these bits into a fairly standard London noir about a femme fatale, though he doesn't go out of his way to convince otherwise. Not quite the zeitgeisty satire it's being marketed as, this is nevertheless an entertaining glimpse into the stagnating, hollow (but apparently rather enjoyable) world of well-heeled hedonism in London: gasp as our hero attends an opulent party at the home of the Bransonesque Sir Jamie (the comparison helpfully signposted for the reader - as is that between Nott himself and Howard Stern); cringe as he drunkenly spills his cocaine in the Groucho Club bogs; shudder at his inevitable snog with his best mate's loved-up daughter (who isn't the femme fatale in question incidentally). There's even a hint of 007 gadgetry - although Ken seems to have the only mobile phone you can't use while it's charging up.

I'd hoped the book would have more to do with the question of saying the unsayable in these censorious times, but it soon turns out Nott spouts what he calls "militant liberal" orthodoxy (anti-Big Business, anti-New Labour, but deeply conflicted over Palestine, pro-political correctness (defined as "what right-wing bigots call what everybody else calls Being polite, or what everybody else calls Not being a right-wing bigot"), etc). He even makes an impassioned defence of that embattled group (I daresay, broadly coincident with Banks' readership) known as liberals: "That's the great thing about liberals; they care for people, not institutions, not nations, not classes, just people. A good liberal doesn't care whether it's their own nation or their own religion or their own class or their own anything that's being beastly to some other bunch of people; it's still wrong and they'll protest about it."
I'd have liked his beliefs - particularly his faith in Truth - to have been even slightly imperilled in the course of the story (as, for example, his testicles, knees and bowel control most certainly are), not because I disagreed with him, but because that might have made it more challenging to read (and for Banks to write, presumably). Perhaps for other readers, the notion of a sympathetic protagonist with broadly left wing views will be more of a jolt, rather than it simply being implausible that someone could keep a job on a commercial radio talkshow without being a laddish, right wing shithead. (Nott is shocked to discover the possibility late on that he's simply being kept on to make the huge company he works for appear radical, unwittingly distracting from its massive profits and involvement in God knows what.)
Nevertheless, the diverting minutiae of Nott's turbulent metro-sex life and the exciting subplot about his televised encounter with a Holocaust denier compensate to some extent for the lack of political questioning. We're given no reason to doubt that Nott's views are simply those of Banks himself, which is boring but fair enough.

However, a truly shocking passage towards the end goes some way to justifying the 11/9 marketing of the book. Nott mentions the statistic (which seems to be fairly widely acknowledged) that 34,000 children die every day from the entirely preventable effects of poverty - "so it's like that image, that ghastly, grey-billowing, double-barrelled fall, repeated twelve times every single fucking day; twenty-four towers, one per hour, throughout each day and night. Full of children." But Banks presents no answers - he doesn't even tell us which country we need to bomb to sort this out.

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They dress like it's now but think only of yesterday. The nostalgists are clinically fucked mate

No longer is 'It's not as good as the old days' relevant in the current wave of neutered nostalgia. "Nothing like it was in the old days" is more correct now. That's because 'girls and boys' alike in the Easy Culture Set (the mainstream middle classes, as ever) are going for the lowest common denominator, music-led fake history of emotions and trends, often at times with disturbing undercurrents - Skool Disko, eg. The key is not To Have Been There Then but to Do A Pale Version Of It Now.

And who's guilty? The Dance Culture, for one. Its rapacious desire to replicate the transcendence of our first taste of communal narco trance-out meant that it was barely the 90s when promoters started putting on 'Back to 89' dos. Fairly innocent-minded these, they were for casualties who fancied a bit more or genuine new enthusiasts who wanted to reach cairos from the quickly-established canon of classics - not strictly a watered down version or indeed a fabrication of events. Soon after, however, the industry realised that the CD compilation was the perfect reminisci-pak (ongoing credit to Brasseye for that term). And now we have several Cream, Ministry or Renaissance comps a year, all the while the things they're celebrating become more sketchy.

But there has also been change in the meaning of the word, diluted and distorting its sense. Nostalgia is from the French nostalgie for homesickness, and for ages that's what it used to mean. Travellers spoke of their nostalgia for home and it was a bittersweet reflection. Slowly it came to take on good as well as bad connotations, meaning you could associate your good times (the mass terrace euphoria of celebrating a goal; loved-up communal post-club vibes, eg), as well as your bad times (chronic acne, family-at-war, er, eg) when looking back. Now the twisters exclusively market it as something to do with the 'Best Days Of Your Life'. No they fucking weren't.

So, if you believe the nostalgic product peddlers (anyone in the entertainments business, basically), the 1980s were an Arcadian time of Grange Hill larks, girls dressing up in good-harmless-fun St Trinian Wear and all the boys 'on it' in terms of the major trends - breakdancing, BMX, the new dance wave, etc - all before we pass through brief moments of rave-related insanity into ultimately well adjusted sales executives and baby factories. Given that most males hardly need encouraging to invent their histories (key: always add on another 18 months if someone tells you when they got into something), and that most girls would never have deigned to have dressed like a young slag when walking home from double maths, we're talking misleading rebranding.

Those 2:2 nuclear family kids are now the country's marketing executives: without the bottle to promote something new, they mine the flimsy, fictitious backpassages of their mind for inspiration

As for the times themselves. Well, those 80s are the key nost-subject at the moment. This is no surprise. First, many families were prospering into something like bourgeois comfort for the first time. Seventies-style strikes and post oil price war inflation had been ruthlessly crushed. Kids were getting product - and choice- that the Yanks and Japanese had had for ages - Nike trainers, crazy dance sounds, sportswear, walkmans, CD players. Never mind that 80s culture was polarised at one end with Thatcherite economic primacy over social concerns, and so at the other with mass unemployment and hooligan disorder but also the level of dissent that WhoreCull would love to see among young Britons now. Never mind that. Don't even mention it. Second, those 2:2 nuclear family kids are now the country's marketing executives: without the bottle to promote something new, they mine the flimsy, fictitious backpassages of their mind for inspiration.

They're completely different from the revivalists, those in search of cultural history lessons, the diggers in the crates if you will. These are searching out something they have no experience of to learn more about themselves and their environment. A gallery-treader looking at a retrospective of young British Art is not nostalgic, a theatre fiend seeing a new production of John Osbourne plays is not nostalgic, my current listening to a collection of 80s alt new wave electronic grooves is not nostalgic - I didn't know the sound from Adam Ant back in the day and I want to hear more of the sound, if indeed it can easily be packaged into a single brand entity - marketing man: "of course it can you amateur fool". Working-class kids tapping the hardcore jungle they were too young for today's garage and breaks scene is not nostalgic. Similarly scenes like the much-derided 'electroclash' is not necessarily nostalgic: generally it's a loose European collective of djs augmenting the traditional house/techno formula with a different welter of sounds. Something that many were doing on dancefloors before journalists could no longer stop themselves from genre-defining. And thus creating a scene. And thus killing it. And thus creating nostalgic compilations about it. At that end, the process can take as little as six months.

Ultimately, the revivalists exist and function and create and progress culture outside of the middle class mainstream, the market where most limp nostalgia is firmly targeted. Where the easiest emotional reaction is guaranteed.

Meaningless
Nostalgia as currently set is thus the ultimate empty (and egotistical) statement. The sounds or the scene devoid of meaning in the reset context. You're ultimately buying into an experience that you were probably too uncool, dorkish or just plain too young to enjoy as it is now being presented. Or in the vibe of Skool Disko, being sold a complete flight-of-fantasy package incorporating deviant sex, drink and the 'best days of our life'. When in fact the reality is the usual moribund disco fare for home counties kids now living in Clapham and 'getting on with their lives' (if not developing their mind). (I haven't been to these places to verify. I don't need to. They are just a dressed-up version of nights that have long been held at places like the Clapham Grand: a founding centre of such evil).

And if meaningless now, the relativity to your past is shaky too. You were unlucky to be enjoying these nost-topics at the time because adolescence is a struggle for many. And seeing as the maturation process seems to stop when you enter university: to get nostalgic now is clearly a cerebral barrier - wallowing in the past as a clear means of having to avoid negotiating a route through the sick 21st-century miasma of Global Mature Cap Anti-Terror Holdings Incorporated.

So it can't possibly relive the moment, it's just an empty replay of the thing, an attempt to say 'I was there' when quite possibly you never were. In nostalgia you don't have to be. Look back to the past, and hide you cowards.

The author is writing a book about his experiences in the 1990s: it will contain good and bad moments and not be soaked up into one easygoing soporific package.

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