I bought my copy of Iain Banks’ Whit at my local market for 25p, and I’m very glad I bought it.
As soon as I saw it I knew it was something special. I’ve worked at that market for around six years (SIX YEARS!) now and, until Whit, hadpurchased only one other item. I read the back and it didn’t really appeal to me:
‘A little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. Innocent in the ways of the world, an ingenue when it comes to pop and fashion, the Elect of God of a small but committed Stirlingshire religious cult: Isis Whit is no ordinary teenager. When her cousin Morag – Guest of Honour at the Luskentyrian’s four- yearly Festival of Love – disappears after renouncing her faith, Isis is marked out to venture among the Unsaved and bring the apostate back into the fold. But the road to Babylondon (as Sister Angela puts it) is a treacherous one, particularly when Isis discovers that Morag appears to have embraced the ways of the Unsaved with spectacular abandon. Truth and falsehood; kinship and betrayal; ‘herbal’ cigarettes and compact discs – Whit is an exploration of the techno-ridden barrenness of modern Britain from a unique perspective.’
Religion? Cults? A travel story with teenagers? It didn’t sound anything like the other Banks’ books I’d read. I was concerned, perhaps Whit was one of those difficult follow-ups that had tried to achieve so much, but, instead, had fallen into disrepute. Banks’ last fiction/novel before Whit had been Complicity – a text I borrowed from a lecturer and read twice or more in a very short space of time. I became more concerned.
Then, about a week ago I opened the front cover nervously, hoping that Banks’ jump into teen-travel had been an intelligent one.
I was not disappointed.
The beginning was pretty heavy; lots of name dropping and biographies, the familiar who’s-who and where’s-where, but the nature of Luskentyrian living excited the otherwise boring banalities of a standard opening (sorry, are we playing chess?). Then it all starts opening out. People start moving around, things start happening and we find ourselves shifting beyond the home in Stirlingshire. We experience Isis’ treks through the long grasses outside her home, catching brief angles and edges of Unsaved houses over the treetops, then the dilapidated bridge, the gurgling river running towards Edinburgh and then the city itself. Here we have the big culture clashes – of the country vs city, of spiritualism vs consumerism, of mechanisation vs nature – which made me as uneasy as excited. All to often, when authors attempt to wrestle with these themes, we find the balance of the narrative slipping away from the storyline; becoming needlessly meditative. The main character will have a heavy day (or something) and sink into bed lamenting their move away from home, or wishing to embrace that which is new and exciting. It often becomes so cold and unfeeling – completely shoehorned in so the author can feel happy that they’ve tackled a ‘key theme’ and got their opinion in there somewhere. Banks, however, manages to escape that (I didn’t expect any less) pulling off Isis’ cultural naivety extremely well. It’s very convincing, to the extent that it makes you rethink why things are how they are, and how odd modern society can be seen when viewed from an outside perspective. It was charming (I hate that word), very charming (grrr), and the comedic scenarios were also very (don’t say it) comedic (rubbish).
I’d like to say that I didn’t know where the plot was going (in many of Banks’ other novels, I had no idea), but in Whit I could feel the most of the twists and turns before they actually came about. That’s not to say that I didn’t find them surprising when they did appear (because they still were), and I’m not saying that I could predict all of the twists and turns, but it certainly wasn’t as crazy as some of Banks’ other fiction/novels. This may be great for some, but not so great for others.
The whole thing has a great pace to it and Banks seems to know just when we need to move forward. This movement – or travelling – is a great strength of the novel. We find Isis hopping trains and hitch-hiking in a manner that screams Kerouac but with a new-age/cultist twist. It feels fresh, exciting and dirty all at the same time, and it never got old for me. It was like I was there, living it and she lived it – and it felt so real despite the situation being so bizarre…
Anyway, it’s a good book – go read it. There’s sex, pornography, coming-of-age, cityscapes, religion, cultism, train-hopping, weird hand gestures, foot cleaning and lots of other cool stuff.
Over and out.