Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes

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It’s great that I had quite a lot of real and exciting things going on when I was reading Infinite Ground – if I had been reading it in one of my more depressed, more introverted periods, I would have gotten even more depressed by this novel, and who wants any of that.

The novel starts out relatively innocently but then turns into a very unsettling read. The story is set in an unnamed city of an unnamed South American country, where one day Carlos, a reliable and hard-working office worker ups and disappears from the restaurant where he’s having a big meal with his family. As the convention of detective stories dictates, the case is assigned to an experienced old investigator who starts to follow the obvious clues but things take a bizarre and unexpected turn around page 3 (even more bizarre and unexpected than the mystery of a man stepping out to the bathroom and never coming back) when the investigator notices that all the witnesses seem to play a role and seem to recite their statements as if they had learned them by heart, and we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of double (or nonexistent) identities, lives outsourced and lives lived instead of someone else, simulacra, copies and imitations (which are often better and more authentic than the real thing), in an alien and intimidating world where the self crumbles to atoms (and not just metaphorically, but in a biological and chemical sense) and where even the fact seems ridiculous that we claim to have names – after all, names are only temporary and utterly unnecessary words we attach to that bunch of atoms that make up a human for a short while.

Infinite Ground is a biological-existentialist novel, and I’ve never read anything like this before. And as I say, it’s a pretty alarming novel – here your average existential angst doesn’t suffice anymore – here we have to be anxious about what goes on deep down in our cells because, after all, every single change in our cells changes who we are, and then there’s entropy lurking everywhere, ready to level out and smooth over our existence – how the hell are we supposed to have any sense of continuity of self then, a self that could be anxious about the questions of finding or creating meaning, and how the hell are we supposed to think that we have any kind of will (let alone free will), personal choices, responsibility for our actions, or any effect on anything at all?

We have none of this, surely, in this novel. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the story gradually disintegrates as we move on. It’s possible that this disintegration is intentional (it definitely emphasizes the disintegration of the characters), but towards the end I got the feeling that MacInnes himself succumbed to his own brand of bio-existentialism and didn’t even attempt to find meaning anymore as the search was bound to be futile.

The novel suffers from such typical shortcomings of first novels, but even though it’s not a masterpiece executed with sure hands, I’d love to read whatever MacInnes writes in the future because his thoughts are exciting, and he approaches this whole array of questions – who we are, what we are, when do we stop being humans – from a unique perspective.

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The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

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Isn’t it fun and interesting to witness other people’s depression?*

Just kidding. The depression of others is usually not the least bit interesting and/or extremely – hm, depressing, depending on how I am doing at that moment. If I’m feeling down, then the depression of others isn’t interesting at all, because my own depression is surely more interesting, more painful and more unique, and who gives a shit anyway. And if I’m feeling wonderful, then I surely don’t need the depression of others – life is wonderful, let’s go rollerblading into the sunshine.

Lucky that there are writers like Janice Galloway, who can make the depression of a person extremely interesting, unsettling, relevant and painful – regardless of how I am doing at the moment.

I’ve been planning to read this novel for ages, purely because I thought the title’s great – all throughout these years I’ve never actually bothered to find out what it’s about. The title, however, has always fascinated me – I thought this must be a darkly ironic self-help title, you know, as if you asked someone in deep existential despair how you’re supposed to live, and the person answered: Oh, it’s easy – the trick is to keep breathing.

Turns out I haven’t been far from the truth. The grieving, neurotic, depressed heroine of the novel, not-exactly-happy Joy spends the story trying very hard to figure out (again) how to live (and why) after a couple of tragedies destroyed her life as she knew it (of course, she’s depressed – so you can imagine how enthusiastic and upbeat her attempts are).

Joy employs different methods and strategies: she takes depression pills and sleeping pills; she drinks a lot; she engages in casual relationships with men; she bakes pastries and biscuits with therapeutic intensity every Sunday; she develops bulimia because sometimes the only thing you can hope for is that you’ll have control over at least one single area of your life; she seeks supposedly professional psychiatric help; and she reads glossy magazines that helpfully advise her to embrace chaos and disorder because that will surely help.

Do I spoil the story if I say that all these tricks are useless?

And does it sound too much like Cosmopolitan if I say that the Solution (if there is one) Lies Within You Only? Oh well. Galloway does a wonderful job alternating between the different phases of Joy’s depression and her attempts to escape from it, and all this is heartbreaking and disturbing – but also funny like hell. I’ve noticed (in literature mostly, where else) that people who are sufficiently (or perhaps too) smart are able to view their own depression from the outside and even while they’re up to their necks in their misery they can still relate to it with scary, clever and also liberating black humor. And Joy’s like this, too – she’s an achingly smart, self-pitying and self-destructing, imperfect, sarcastic, helpless woman with a terrific sense of humor as her only weapon – still, she is aware even while she’s hitting rock bottom that there will be change, there must be change. Only not this week yet. Not tonight. Not yet.

And I think it would be futile to hope for more than this, to trust that things will turns out more spectacularly than this. If there’s an optimistic ending here (but what’s an optimistic ending, anyway? When I read about characters like Joy I can imagine neither that they’ll just put an end to it [they are far too curious for that] nor that they’ll ride their unicorn away into the rainbow-colored future in the end [they are way too smart to believe in rainbows and unicorns]) then it’s really only this: There will be change. Just not today.

* Obviously, I know these two are not interchangeable, but in this text I’m referring to clinical depression and the experience of feeling low somewhat interchangeably – for purely stylistic reasons.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

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I’d read this novel many many years ago, and I probably liked it even back then, but I don’t think it blew my mind as much as it did now. It must have been good to read Trainspotting as a young innocent smart-ass rebel, but – for me – it’s definitely a more shattering experience to read it when I’m not so young, not that innocent and not that big of a rebel anymore (I’m still a smart-ass, that one hasn’t changed).

I have no idea how Irvine Welsh knows this much about addiction (everyone’s an addict, allegedly, and recently I’ve been having lots of conversations with people about addiction and dependency, and I wonder whether there’s a significant difference between me being addicted to smoking, someone being a food junkie, someone else being a shopaholic, and someone else being addicted to computer games – and I don’t think there is – there are only surface differences – in that some forms of addiction are more accepted, some are less, some addictions ruin your life somewhat faster than others, and some addictions allow you to tell – seemingly – funny stories about them, while others don’t), about the hopelessness of things and about not giving a fuck about them, about rotting away and selling yourself out, about the secret romanticism of addiction, about the impossibility of change, about laughing at your pain, about the feeling that you will never ever have this (something, anything – normal this or that – life, perhaps) so you pretend that you wouldn’t even want that, and despise everything normal and scornfully laugh at anyone who dares to assume that perhaps you’d want that something, after all.

I won’t go looking into Welsh’s biography now because it doesn’t matter how he knows all this – it’s enough that he definitely understands it deeply: the massive self-deception and self-hate of addicts; the way how it always starts out as a game – why wouldn’t I try this, I’m smart, strong and in control, and I can do whatever I want; the fact that addiction is a wonderful way to fill time and while you’re deep in it, there’s no need to think and do anything else, which is awesome.

I sense the sarcasm in my voice but I’m not sure at what or at whom it’s directed at. Sometimes I wonder, for example, how many minutes a day I spend smoking, and I realize that if I didn’t smoke, besides being healthier and having more money, I’d also have a lot more time – but what would I do with all that time? Would I read one more book in a week? Would I watch three more films or would I translate two more of those things I translate? But – why would I want to do that?

And I don’t even live in the 1980s in forgotten and rotting Leith but in the 2010s in a very friendly and nice town where things don’t actually look hopeless. And I’m not even talking about heroin addiction, only about the relatively simple and innocent addiction to cigarettes – so if I multiply my feelings and my experiences with addiction by a thousand, then perhaps I can imagine how the characters of this novel live, and can imagine the things they do and the way they don’t give a shit and mock everything.

And it’s frightening and brilliant, by the way, when Welsh/one of his narrators starts to talk about all kinds of serious topics, for example, when Renton talks about the psychologists and social workers and other helpers who all wanted to rehabilitate him, and goes on to analyze himself in a deeply self-ironic fashion, and then I feel how my relatively good-girlish mind, always looking for explanations and always trying to gain understanding, soaks up Renton’s words with hope and enthusiasm, secretly thinking how there must really be such a connection that Renton’s a junkie because his relationship with his brother was like this and that, and because this and that happened to his other brother – my mind keeps clinging to the idea that there must be an explanation, and if there’s an explanation, then there must be a solution, too, when in fact there’s no automatic explanation, no automatic solution, and no, there’s absolutely no causal link between vegetarianism and heroin addiction, either.

I didn’t remember Trainspotting was such a dark novel. And I didn’t remember, either, that it’s such a funny one (I didn’t go into this but it’s extremely, laugh out loud funny). And I didn’t remember, either, how it’s full of perfect, precise and cutting sentences, such as this one, which perfectly sums up in 12 words what it feels like to be addicted to something.

„Ah came fir a pint, but ah might jist git pished yit.”

There But for The by Ali Smith

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Words are all we have – said Samuel Beckett once, but I don’t know where he said it and in what context. Anyway, I agree with him, being a fanatic of words myself.

And Ali Smith is a fanatic of words, too. Sometimes she does get on my nerves (I’m not such a devoted fan of puns and word-plays as she is) but mostly I just look (and experience) with awe and wonder what she does with words.

For example, on the day when I wake up and suddenly realize the connection between the short story the main character had written once in his teens and the thoughts of an old lady about some awful event her daughter told her about a long time ago. I don’t want to go into details – suffice it to say that I was leaning to the kitchen table for a good long while the morning I made the connection, and I very much wanted to go back to bed, curl up, and cry, because it breaks my heart to think how one can make beauty out the horrible. (Must things be horrible before there can be beauty?)

Words are all we have. Imperfect, sometimes false, sometimes true.

And our lives are all we have. Imperfect, false, true, unknowable, impossible to share.

As far as I know her work, Ali Smith always writes about this. About unknowable lives – like here, about a man called Miles, who goes to a dinner party, and in the middle of the party he excuses himself, proceeds to shut himself in the spare bedroom, and doesn’t leave it for months.

Certain questions arise:

Who’s this Miles?
What the hell does he want?
Why doesn’t he leave the room?
And who are the other people in his life?

Words are all we have. Certainty – we don’t. So all we get by way of answers is:

He’s an average middle-aged guy.
I don’t know, perhaps he doesn’t, either.
I don’t know, perhaps he does.
Just people – nothing special.

More questions:

Why’s this good to read?
And what’s all this, anyway?

More possible answers:

It’s good to read this because this story is just as accidental as any life, and life’s accidental quality and randomness always fascinates me. And anyway – perhaps tomorrow you will shut yourself in a room. And perhaps you’re already shut in a room today.
And what’s all this – a celebration of imagination and of the power of words, words, words – most of all.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

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Submergence is a strange, heavy, dense, deep novel.
Sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable due to its sheer brutality.

The story: the British spy, James More (a descendant of Thomas More), who pretends to be a water engineer, is captured by jihadists in Somalia. (Water will become important again soon, right in the next sentence.) Meanwhile, Danny (who’s female), a bio-mathematician is preparing for an important dive deep into the ocean, which will probably supply her with hordes of data about the most ancient, most primeval, most indestructible life forms of the planet.

(Danny is obsessed with depth, and she often ponders about the fact that both for individual human beings, and for humanity as a whole, it’s much more difficult to travel inside, downwards, where there’s more and more darkness and pressure. Compared to this, discovering the space and emptiness above us – traveling outward, forever farther, higher, faster – is much easier and much less painful.)

While James faces deprivations in captivity and Danny prepares for her dive – both locked up in their eternal loneliness and abandonment, both afraid of the unknown inside and out – they often think about the other, and about their story together: a past Christmas in a small hotel in the French countryside where they first met, and where they had an affair that only lasted for a couple of days, yet engulfed their whole life and being in that short time.

The story of these few days unfold slowly, tucked in between the chapters dealing with the present life of the main characters (mostly of James).

The intention is clear: while he’s being brutalized in captivity, the few days of intimacy, real closeness, and deep human bond he experienced with Danny start to occupy a unique place in his mind, and his memories of the time spent together become something he can hold on to in order to keep his sanity – even if all the depth and intimacy he experienced with Danny was more or less an illusion, because Danny is unable to simplify her work – which is her innermost essence – in a way that others can understand it, and James isn’t even allowed to disclose his real occupation.

And don’t get me wrong – both Danny and James do what they do out of a very real obsession, and they even keep working during their Christmas holidays, so in their case we might say that their jobs occupy a crucial place in their life, and that they devote a significant part of their innermost selves to their occupations. The occupations they can’t or are not allowed to share with the other.

Perhaps it’s due to this ultimate impossibility-to-share that this novel often speaks in a language that distances me from the characters to the extent I don’t like to be distanced.

And I feel distanced even if there’s an abundance of beautiful and cosmic passages here – about how we are such a young and perishable species (and the only species that’s mesmerized by its own consciousness), about how most organisms live hiding in the depth, in small nooks – and parallel to this, there’s a deeply human melancholy here, a desire for life, and a desire for intimacy (because, after all, we probably really are enamored by our own consciousness, and we ache to share our secret depths with someone).

(Of course that’s another question whether we feel that the parallels drawn among the themes of the ocean, humanity, individual humans, depth, and so on are too direct or not – for me they are a bit too direct.)

So there’s a lot of fine, telling, often painfully beautiful or unsettling details here – a simple but touching simile; a memory of the now far-away Christmas (for example, when James thinks he can hide himself from Danny and then it turns out that Danny can read him like an open book – which, in this case, isn’t bad because it means that someone truly pays attention); or a present event (for example, when James masturbates in his cell with the intention to soil the space around him – and he deliberately avoids thinking about Danny during his act of rebellion).

But these tender or brutal passages are often lost in the sea of encyclopedic, political, or schoolteacher-like ruminations. I often feel that Ledgard-the-journalist defeats Ledgard-the-fiction-writer, and I don’t think that’s particularly desirable in a novel. For literary fiction, the style of this novel is too dry. Sure, you can write things like: “James was traumatized by certain experiences during his captivity to such an extent that he lost all his ability to act” – but to me this feels more like journalism, not fiction. And before I get completely lost in my train of thought: this isn’t non-fiction. This book is literary fiction, only not very successful as such.

Not always successful – because when Ledgard decides to dig a little deeper (yes!) into his characters, into their thoughts, and into the way they experience their lives (be it either the invocation of memories, or the deprivations and mortal danger of the present), then I also feel this depth, and I’m touched and unhinged, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and they crawl into my dreams. However, when Ledgard goes on to deliver a lecture about the political situation in Somalia or about Islam, then I have a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting that these are James’ thoughts, even if the lectures are prefaced by saying “James thought that…”

In the end, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, this is an extremely strong and affecting book (perhaps – just perhaps – partly because it’s based on real events), and it more or less works as a novel, too – that’s for sure that I want to find out what happens to the characters (I’m more interested in James’ fate than in Danny’s, though, probably because there’s much more depth to James’ character, and I naturally feel more about him than about Danny). But all the lecturing and explanations do nothing good for me here.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

I love to read books I know nothing about, and this was one such book. I noticed it in the book store while I was helping my friend find a gift for her boyfriend, and I liked its title, its cover and the fact that according to the blurb the protagonist was called Rilke so much that I wanted to read it immediately. I don’t want to be mystical – I don’t claim that books mysteriously call out to me. They do not. But sometimes a cover, a title or a name starts off a chain of associations in my mind or reminds me of certain events in such a way that I get irrepressibly curious and I want to know the book in question at once.

The Cutting Room is set in Glasgow, and the main character is the already mentioned Rilke. In spite of his poet-name, Rilke isn’t a dreamy, poetic, sophisticated character, rather, he is a cynical and cunning man. He works for an auction house as an auctioneer and the manager of collections, besides, he smokes and drinks a lot and likes to go for night walks to the park where he engages in quick sex with other loitering men. At first sight he is a bitter man with a heart made of stone, but it soon turns out that he is softer than he seems. One day he comes across an envelope full of pornographic photos while working on a collection. Most of the photos are typical pornographic shots, however, there are a couple of snuff photos, including some depicting a girl with her throat cut.

Rilke is very much disturbed by the pictures, therefore he starts out on a meaningless quest: he tries to find out whether the photos are real or staged because even though the pictures seem to have been taken at least 50 years ago, therefore the chances to uncover anything about them are slim, Rilke simply cannot get them out of his head. In order to find out something definite, he puts himself into danger, neglects his duties and gets entangled in a web of lies – and in the meantime he digs deeper and deeper into the Glasgow underworld where – despite all his previous criminal experiences – he seems like a naive young boy and where he has to face such facts which wear out even his not-too-sensitive soul.

The Cutting Room is supposed to be a crime novel/thriller, however, the investigation itself is not too interesting and the solution is not as elegant as, say, that of an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, I wouldn’t even call Rilke’s actions an „investigation” – I’d rather say it’s a manic quest in which it is painfully obvious from the very beginning that even if he gets the answer to his question, it won’t be satisfactory or won’t mean anything at all. All this is not a problem, by the way, all I’m saying is that you’d better not read this novel as a crime story because it’s not too good as such, but as a „literary” novel, it is excellent.

For instance, the way Welsh depicts how Rilke’s obsession keeps growing and how he loses touch with his ordinary reality is brilliant. The time frame of the story (minus the epilogue) is only a couple of weeks, but these few weeks are more than enough for Rilke to become dangerously disoriented and to begin to question how real reality is and what is behind that. The theme of the pornographic photos is also related to Rilke’s re-interpretation of reality: according to the official standpoint, „real” snuff porn doesn’t exist, and pictures sold as snuff all show staged scenes – however, there’s no way of knowing for sure if this is true or not. The reality Rilke encounters is unknowable, and frightening – and Welsh shows this scary quality very effectively.

Besides this, the settings and the atmosphere of the novel are also unique – it’s been a long time since I read any book as dark, bizarre and oppressing as The Cutting Room. The dingy, shady flat of Rilke’s boss, Rose, full of feminine secrets; the gay bar where transgender men can truly become women once a month; the obscure book shop which hides a cellar labyrinth underneath; or the pokey home of Rilke’s old friend, the drug dealer Leslie – in all these places people are not what they seem: the clientele of the gay bar consists of women who are in fact men, Leslie, the tough drug dealer turns out to be not-so-tough, and so on. And the way reality and illusion, true and false mingle in the novel, and Rilke’s futile quest to learn the truth makes this novel truly uncanny (and therefore truly exciting for me).

Complicity by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is a great moralizer. All his books I’ve read so far (mostly science fiction novels, apart from The Wasp Factory) were full of „big” moral issues so I wasn’t surprised to find that Complicity is also a heavily moralizing fable. (The post contains spoilers.)

In this novel the characters contemplate the way modern capitalist societies work, and they try to decide whether one is allowed to punish those money and power-grabbing, immoral businessmen, politicians, doctors and public figures who ignore common people and feel free to walk through everyone in order to attain their goals.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Cameron Colley, a gonzo journalist, who keeps referring to and comparing himself to his hero, Hunter S. Thompson – but in fact he only resembles Thompson in the sense that he is destroying his mind and body with all the addictive substances available to him (drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, computer games) with a Thompson-like dedication and enthusiasm. Otherwise he’s far from being a really Hunter-like mad-gonzo figure – perhaps because basically he’s a typical screwed-up liberal arts-sucker: an idealist pretending to be a cynic, who honestly believes that, for instance, he can make the world a better place by writing investigative articles for a newspaper. (By the way, I deeply appreciate and respect this way of thinking.)

At the beginning of the story, Cameron is working on a big issue: a mysterious informer keeps calling him up and tells him some details about the circumstances of a couple of strange murders which happened some years ago and which might have been interconnected. Cameron is trying to get ahead with this case, but in the meantime, there’s another murder series in the present tense of the story as well: some rich and powerful public figures are murdered, and after a while Cameron becomes the prime suspect since he happened to write a disparaging article about these figures some time earlier, and his alibi for the time of the murders is rather shaky.

I guess it’s not a big surprise that the murderer is not Cameron but a self-appointed avenger who hates capitalist society just as much as Cameron does, however, as opposed to the journalist, he doesn’t only hate it in theory but is willing to perform some harsh measures to make the world a better place – as he imagines it.

Of course the novel isn’t only the critique of capitalism but a lot of other things as well – or rather, I should say, it contains many other things besides heavy moralizing: for instance, there are a couple of relatively detailed, lightly sadomasochistic sex scenes; there are a lot of reminiscences about the past and childhood traumas which shaped the narrator’s adult life; and there are intriguing, almost spiritual meditations on the nature of (cigarette, drug, computer game, whatever) addiction which really do remind me a bit of Hunter S. Thompson.

Only – and this is not surprising in a book by Iain Banks – the novel is a bit crowded. It contains a lot of plot lines, which is not a problem in itself, but none of the plot lines is elaborated sufficiently, so the result is a novel which is not a crime story, not a „proper” criticism of modern society, not a soul-searching, past-processing drama, and not a mad-gonzo work of fiction in the style of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a little bit of all these, a book which contains innumerable great touches, details and ideas, but isn’t so great or very interesting as a whole.