Posts Tagged ‘Scottish fiction’

Iain Banks: Espedair Street

October 27, 2021

     Long ago I’d read and liked a couple of Iain Banks novels – SF probably – but wouldn’t have picked up this one except for it being a book group choice. The title made me think: Espedair/despair? espérer=hope (in French)? To me it seemed apt, for a story of a working class youth becoming a mega rockstar, torn away from his roots and home, class and country, having enjoyed the wealth, sex, drugs and fame, and brought to the point of wondering what the hell was the point of it all, or anything, really…

The first thing that struck me was Banks’ amazing fluency in his use of our language, lovely writing and imagery that seemed to flow effortlessly from his pen (or keyboard), lyrical at times without being poetic, although he gets to indulge that streak when he creates the rock band’s lyrics, I suppose.

The narrator is the lyricist, whose talents enable the band to break through to the big time. And he must leave his Glasgow roots, his past and his working-class origins, and the people he knows, for that kind of success happens elsewhere among different people. There is Catholic guilt, poverty, a woman on whom he has a teenage crush…and leaves behind.

Banks creates a vivid and convincing picture of the excesses of the success enjoyed by rockstars with stratospheric wealth: parties, sex, drink, drugs, recklessness, all verging on insanity. There’s an equally convincing portrait of the seamier and more violent sides of Glasgow life. Gradually, and piecemeal, a powerful series of questions forefront themselves in the narrator’s mind, and herein, for me, lies the brilliance of the novel. Have all these youthful years of success and excess been an utter waste, pointless and empty? Has he derived any happiness or even satisfaction from it all? On the contrary, as time passes, the regrets become clearer for him, it seems: he has achieved fame, but two other members of the band are dead. He has left his working-class Glasgow roots behind – the other members are from rather wealthier backgrounds than his – and feels that he’s somehow sold out, betrayed himself, his family and friends. Looking back, he realises how much of all this he has hidden from himself all this time. Who is he, really?

He reaches a point where he contemplates ending it all, but is unable to bring himself to do it; then, through a series of happy coincidences which were to me perhaps the least convincing aspect of the novel, comes to realise what really matters, giving away his wealth and realising he can still live more modestly from his talents, and ends up almost happy ever after with his teenage sweetheart. Was this a cop-out of an ending? Perhaps, but it didn’t detract from the power of the novel for me. Briefly I did ask myself, is this a boys’ book? Probably.

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