printer friendly version (pdf)

Reading Double, Writing Double: The Fiction of
Iain (M.) Banks

Iain Banks' writing can be located within a context of contemporary British fiction, namely the period after 1970. The rationale for the provision of a context wider than Scottish fiction is determined by Banks who, as Thom Nairn explains, has 'expressed doubts about the place he may or may not occupy in a specifically Scottish literary tradition, as well as some dubiety about Scottish literature itself.'1 In an interview with James Robertson in Radical Scotland, Banks claims that:

I don't really know enough about Scottish literature, so I'm very dubious about saying "Yes, I'm part of this tradition". I'm certainly part of the English language tradition. I've been a lot more influenced by Catch 22, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Tin Drum, and almost anything by Kafka, than by anything in Scottish literature apart from the single exception of Lanark. [...]2

The reluctance to define his oeuvre and his own authorial status within a specific region or nation is the reflection of a novelist whose influences range from the Transatlantic to the European and South American.

A writer whose work transgresses ideas of genre and form, Iain Banks publishes two different styles of novel: popular, commercial fictions that often focus on postmodern Gothic transformations of the thriller genres, and works of scientific or speculative fiction which are often set in his critical Utopia, The Culture. These two different outputs are published under different names, Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks respectively. Banks, then, is a novelist who has his own 'double', an author for whom the idea of a split writing persona is emphatically not out of place.

The space between is often bridged and the differentiation between the two is overcome by the frequent overlaps and intertextual references that exist within the different novels. The presentation of the double within Banks' work is reinforced by Nairn who claims that:

potential schisms in the individual (schisms are piled on schisms of all kinds) are constantly present in Banks's fiction, making it comparable to R.L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and James Hogg's Confessions or The House with the Green Shutters, or Alasdair Gray's Lanark.3

Overall, Iain Banks' oeuvre represents a nexus of different authorial strategies and practices within post-1970s British fiction. To reinforce and expand this, echoing Nairn's statement, Banks also writes fiction which is influenced by two foundational Scottish texts: James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). According to Karl Miller, the figure of the double is 'the most potent [...] of Scottish Gothic [...]' which he claims 'stands at the start of that cultivation of uncertainty by which the literature of the modern world has come to be distinguished.'4 These essences and symbols of the Gothic, with its fracturing and doubling, and the problematic perspectives offered by the narrators in these texts, are also connected to a more general aspect of Scottish culture: 'the Caledonian antisyzygy', a term originally applied by C. Gregory Smith to highlight the 'characteristic yoking together of realism with fantasy in Scottish textual practice', particularly pertinent to the narrative strategies of Hogg and Stevenson.5 The fusion of realism and fantasy is just one of the techniques which Banks has come to employ with commercial and critical success and it characterises the overlaps between the different genres he operates in.

Not content with this, Banks regularly blurs the boundaries between 'fantasy' and 'realism' in his novels, to the extent that often the reader is struggling to differentiate between the two: a strategy which, Gavin Wallace suggests, 'is a source of concern and puzzlement to newer, younger critics, but it would be difficult to deny the continuing relevance of the fundamental issues of contradictoriness and paradox to the Scottish imagination.'6 Contradiction and paradox are two significant aspects of Banks' perception of his own craft as a novelist, as evidenced in his interviews where he (self-effacingly) distances himself from suggestions he is a 'literary' writer but then structures his novels in forms which openly display the attributes popularly associated with works of 'literature'.

The recurrent presentation of different forms of doubles and doubling provides a rationale for focusing on Banks' more 'mainstream' novels. The strongest case for Banks' bridging of genres and his eclectic inhabitation of the double domains of the high and low/popular and literary is to be made through an examination of his non-science fiction work. As Nairn suggests, 'his work outside the science fiction field (though rarely far from its edges) is his most interesting'.7

In the wide-ranging corpus that is contemporary fiction, Iain Banks' status as a non-canonical author is significant, particularly given the difficulty of locating him within a singular genre or form. As a wildly innovative, imaginative, popular and subversive novelist, his works are infused with darker elements that give them a forbidden, cultish, underground status, but the fictions that are perceived as being in his more conventional and less evidently speculative mode fail to achieve recognition through awards and prizes—perhaps because of that transgressive streak and the two different forms he writes in. [...]

This article has 4 pages. Go on to page 2 or view the entire article.

1 Thom Nairn, "Iain Banks and the Fiction Factory" in Gavin Wallace and Randall Stevenson (eds.) The Scottish Novel since the Seventies: New Visions, Old Dreams (Edinburgh University Press, 1993) p. 129.

2 James Robertson, "Bridging Styles: A conversation with Iain Banks", Radical Scotland 42 (December 1989/January 1990), pp. 26-27.

3 Nairn, p. 129.

4 Karl Miller, Doubles: Studies in Literary History (Oxford University Press, 1985) p.viii.

5 Tim Middleton, "Constructing the Contemporary Self: The Works of Iain Banks" in Tracey Hill and William Hughes (eds.) Contemporary Writing and National Identity (Sulis Press, 1995) p.20.

6 Gavin Wallace in Wallace and Stevenson (eds.) The Scottish Novel since the Seventies: New Visions, Old Dreams (Edinburgh University Press, 1993), p.218.

7 Nairn, p.127.