Granted, it has been a while since I’ve read much Iain Banks, the last one being The Firm. My mum got me into him a few years back, recommending that I read The Wasp Factory. A superb read, if you can get your head around the complete oddity of the plot. However, this freakish storyline is what makes it such a good read – it is a sign of incredible originality – along with the timelessness of the story. Not timelessness in the sense that it will forever be hailed as a breakthrough in literature, but in the sense that you feel isolated from any signs of periodical context throughout the read; it is never explicitly set in a modern era, nor in a past one. This, I find, was what attracted me to Iain Banks, and so I expected nothing less from Stonemouth. Unfortunately, it is just the lack of either which makes Banks’ new book essentially four hundred pages of middle-of-the-road pop-lit.
Revolving around something of a “star-crossed lovers” plot involving the daughter of a Scottish ‘gangster’ and the son of his rival’s best friend, Stonemouth presents a mostly-believable-but-to-the-point-of-tedium image of 21st century Scotland. It is this relentless sticking to reality that is the books downfall. The narrative is peppered with irritatingly childlike references to the protagonist’s ‘iPhone’, to the amount of ‘gizmos’ present, and the cringing use of ‘OMG’ at one point that make me concerned that Banks is trying too hard to be definitively modern and “hip and happening”, if you will. In this day and age, the iPhone is so comfortably prevalent that the constant identification of it is cripplingly asinine. If, of course, the phone was of some symbolism and major importance to the plot, it could be forgiven, but instead it becomes like that one person that we all know who insists on showing off every vaguely impressive new object that they acquire.
That is not to say that the actual narrative is completely devoid of good writing. Indeed, there are several scenes in the book, admittedly all concerning violence or the potential of it, that grabbed hold of me and threatened me with a pool cue to the back of the head dare I look away from the page. But what is less fulfilling is that that pretty much sums up the tone of the book: it holds you hostage with the promise of tense confrontations between the various undesirables of the estuary town of Stonemouth, but ultimately you get nothing really positive out of it. Unlike so much of Banks’ previous writing, this fails to deliver anything of any originality or substance.
Given my track record with Iain Banks’ work, I would be lying if I said that I was not disappointed. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the read, but it was only enjoyable on the same level that the Eurovision Song Contest is; it is a novel (no pun intended) way to spend a few hours, but it is nothing short of vapid. And also just like the Eurovision, the outcome is boringly predictable. If you need a book just to pass the time on journeys, then go for it and give Stonemouth a read, but if you are looking for anything beyond light entertainment, avoid at all costs.
Stonemouth was published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Company.