Last week I finished reading Matter by Iain Banks, a book bought years ago from the Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at its launch party. Matter‘s a funny book, like many of the last run of books Banks wrote it could have stood another edit and general tightening up. I’m not sure, exactly what it was all about. The story rumbles along a bit aimlessly, leading us on an interesting tour and taking in some impressive set pieces, before accelerating in the final third of the book towards an explosive, violent and visceral conclusion that’s vintage Banks. But… I’m still not sure what the book was about. There are little threads, little hints of events ‘off camera’, but the book isn’t as tightly plotted as the subtle and superlative Inversions. I don’t think there’s a dark twist hidden from the reader, as some Banks fans have read into The State of the Art.
A recurring theme, nonetheless, is the condition of living in a material universe and the strange absurdities thrown up by the mindless dance of particles. Through one of his characters, Banks offers this reflection on human life and summary of the materialist outlook on the social world:
Most men – and most women, too, no doubt – lived and died under the general weight of the drives and needs, expectations and demands they experienced from within and without, beaten this way and that by longings for sex, love admiration, comfort, importance and wealth and whatever else was their particular fancy, as well as being at the same time channelled into whatever furrows were deemed appropriate for them by those on high.
In life you hoped to do what you could but mostly you did what you were told and that was the end of it.