Iain Banks is a renaissance man. A novelist, science-fiction writer, environmentalist and political activist; he’s a risk-taker in his fiction and, famously, in his life off the page. In his newest novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Banks returns to familiar territory — the dark undertones of daily life and the rot of family secrets — while adding his political sensibility to the fold.
After famously cutting up his passport and hanging it on the door of 10 Downing Street following Britain’s participation in the 2003 Iraq invasion, Banks has no qualms asserting his anti-imperialist bent in his creative work. While speaking to his family, Garbadale’s protagonist Alban McGill seems to echo Banks’ own view: “The USA is a great country full of great people. It’s just their propensity for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the greatest depravity that I object to.”
It is not the author’s politics that this reviewer disagrees with; rather, it is the flippancy and lack of nuance with which they’re asserted in this novel. Banks seems to have plenty of great stances and ideas, but he doesn’t spend the time to properly explicate any of them.
The novel’s shifting locations and non-linear chronology further dilute Banks’ occasional salience. Is it necessary to have a flashback to 2004’s devastating tsunami, a drug trip through Singapore, Parisian affairs and multiple incidents of incest in one body of work if none of them is done particularly well? Banks may have bitten off more than he could chew, and a malnourished reader is the unfortunate result.
What is perhaps most disappointing is that Banks is capable of gorgeous prose, and when it glimmers in Garbadale it makes one hungry for more. He is at his most compelling when he slows down enough to let the reader explore the world he’s created.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale may well be a lesson to creative types everywhere: it is one thing to possess a good idea, but it is entirely another to follow through on it mindfully.