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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not one of his best - but still very worthwhile, 2 Sept. 2008
This review is from: The Steep Approach To Garbadale (Hardcover)
A British family company, the Wopulds, built its fortune on a board - then later a computer - game called Empire. Now they are considering selling it off to the Americans. This can be seen as Banks building a sort of elaborate metaphor for Britain as the faded former imperial power and the world's policeman, with that role now being taken over by the Americans.

The main character of the novel - Alban Wopuld - seems a typical Banks character, a person getting older but seemingly incapable of growing up, begins in a form of self-imposed exile from the family business, but is bought back into the bosom of his family to help decide whether they will indeed sell out to the Americans.

Alban's obsession with a brief fling with his cousin during his teenage years is another sign of his inability to let go of his idealistically naÔve teenage years when it all seemed so simple to him - us against them. Alban's cousin - surely a link to the British/American special relationship where both countries regard each other and even call each other `cousins' - Sophie, eventually moves to and becomes American. Plastic surgery is hinted at as her way of becoming even more American. The more American she becomes, the wider the gap between Alban and Sophie becomes. He loved her and believed that she loved him - a sort of special relationship, indeed.

The British Empire theme is further explored by having Alban wandering the globe and fetching up in various outposts of the former Empire, especially Hong Kong.

Alban is a self-proclaimed lefty. However, one who took business studies and then the corporate shilling - an analogy of `New Labour', perhaps - working for the family firm, before resigning in a fit of moral indignation. Finally working as a lumberjack - maybe as a form of atonement - before damage to his hand forces him out of that and back to confront his family.

Alban is - of course - deeply suspicious of the Americans, the potential buyers of the family firm - and their claim to understand the `culture' of the British company/Empire and to be standing for the same civilising values that the British once claimed for themselves. For example, near the end of the novel his rather trite anti-American ranting that would be embarrassingly skipped over when come across in a Grauniad CiF comment. It is the sort of behaviour typical of the teenage/young adult rant given by middle-class students who want to adopt the pose of the left-wing radical. Alban also spouts some of the left wing always good, right wing always bad, banalities that almost - at times - turn him into the clichéd middle-class lefty.

Many of the other characters seem crudely drawn too. For example, Win, Alban's grandmother as a crude caricature of Margaret Thatcher seen through from a distorting left-wing perspective.

Maybe Alban's failure to prevent the literal `sell-out' to the American's and his empty futile and cliché-ridden diatribes against the American's are Banks' acknowledgement - consciously or unconsciously - that the Left is dead - a complete failure, as philosophically and moral bankrupt as it is politically.

The novel features some brief first person interludes, at the beginning and end, by a character called Tango with whom Alban seems to spend his time, maybe represents the society created by Alban's beloved Left in Scotland, welfare dependents existing in a drug and takeaway fuelled nihilistic squalor.

[Possible spoiler]

By the end of the book, Alban no longer lives in the squalor, sleeping on Tango's floor where we first found him. He lives off in the posh part of the town, alone, but in a vague relationship with his academic girlfriend, which is another sign of the character's inability to mature into something more substantial. The connection with Tango and his pals, has not entirely been severed, though, but Alban only occasionally visits, or is visited by Tango and his cronies (only on their best behaviour), which in the end is quite symbolic of the relationship between the remains of the Left - middle-class and insular - and the people they once purported to represent.

[End possible spoiler]

Not one of Banks' best novels, but, however, that still puts this head and shoulders above a great deal of contemporary fiction and is - I think - well worth a read - recommended.
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