Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Dead Air

Part of my reason for writing this blog is that I think it might be interesting to explore what failure is and what it means to people (or rather to me, and maybe to the culture I live in a bit as well). I want to explore how things which can be defined as failure may not always amount to the negative concept that the word itself, taken alone, tends to signify.

Another part of my reason for writing this blog is that I like to beat myself up over all of the things that I've fucked up or given up on or let go of or generally not been good or devoted or forward-thinking enough to finish. (Do I like doing this or am I compelled to do so? The latter is probably just as accurate a description as it's a large part of the intrusive thought patterns that blight my depressed periods; it's rather annoying when a sentence that was supposed to be flippant turns out being uncomfortably revealing.)

The thing about failure is that sometimes, rather than being solely disheartening, it can actually be quite liberating. Once you realise that you are unable to do something you can begin to realise that doing that thing was not the be-all and end-all of your existence anyway. You can sometimes even start to see that the thing that you thought was important, or didn't even consciously think was important - just that it was a necessary part of being alive or being you or being complete, was getting in the way of a lot of other things that you could have been doing at the time. Sometimes it's not until you fail to do something that you even realise you would have considered not doing that thing to be a failure.

There's a part of me that still feels bad about not finishing Dead Air, nine years or so after I tried to read it. I periodically see it in my bookshelf and think, 'if I'd ploughed through that, if I'd only finished it, I would be more complete as a human being,' but I know now that those thoughts are unworthy. The thing is, it's a really abysmal book: often embarrassing and illustrative of all the things that people criticise Iain Banks for (all the things that I can now appreciate and understand as valid criticisms, but without changing my opinion of his best work) without any of the things that normally make his books worth reading. It's full of lefty tokenism, ciphers, polemicising authorial mouthpieces, undifferentiated dialogue, terrible phonetic dialects (not even Scottish this time) and ludicrously porny sex. That was only the first few chapters as well, although I am assured that it continued in this manner without any semblance of a decent plot to redeem it at the end.

I got the book quite early on in what has turned out, to my delight, to be an enduring relationship - in that I am still happily with the person who I went halves on the cost of it with. Now, obviously in the intervening years there have been a lot of things that we have gone halves on - boring stuff like rent and TV licences. That early on in a relationship buying a book together still seems like quite a big deal. Although I think part of it may have been that we were too skint to buy a copy each and, as we were at a reading, we both wanted to get our copy signed. So, we clubbed together and got him to sign the book to both of us - which is serious business when you are the kind of Banks fan I was back then.

The kind of Banks fan I was back then is a completist. I had read almost every book that he had written (at that point there were just three books I hadn't read yet, Inversions, The State of the Art and The Crow Road), and I expected to close down that gap pretty sharpish at my current rate. In fact, this had been a general pattern in my reading for as long as I had been reading, and I hadn't given it any thought except to think that it was the natural way to approach things. Once I found a writer whose work I liked I assumed that I would, eventually at least, read all of their books; that this was the natural aiming point. When you add that to the schoolboy urge to collect and to compare collections, and you have a group of nerdy friends like mine all reading the same writers, then you have a potent normative force towards complete canonical absorption as an end in and of itself - no matter if the material itself is any good. (Incidentally, this is the same state of affairs that kept me buying Korn albums long after they were actually listenable or interesting.)

I was actually proud of myself for how well read I was - how broad-minded I was compared to my friends. I would go to Lewisham or New Cross library at least once a week and pick out all sorts of books from the shelves with, I told myself, an adventurous flair and a connoisseur’s taste - and I did read some really interesting books and find some really interesting authors (as well as an awful lot of second rate fantasy). However, for every interesting new find I would have read god-knows how many books from within my completionist pantheon: Banks, Rankin, Pratchett and Gemmell.

This went on for years. Until, in fact, I tried to read Dead Air, at which point the spell was broken. I'd already made it through The Business, I thought I was battle-hardened and up to anything he could throw at me, but I wasn't. So in a way I won. By being unable to finish this book I knew that the whole project of completion was over - was unwinnable, but knowing that it was unwinnable meant that I was free not to fight. Leaving behind the rather dubious and possibly inappropriate set of military metaphors then, I was able expand my reading horizons hugely - because now deciding that I like an author doesn't entail a subconscious contract to track down every last thing they write. Which is definitely less stressful.

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