Iain Banks: Dead Air

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Iain Banks Dead Air
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    Dead Air
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Iain Banks' daring new novel opens in a loft apartment in the East End, in a former factory due to be knocked down in a few days. Ken Nott is a devoutly contrarian vaguely left wing radio shock-jock living in LondonAfter a wedding breakfast people start dropping fruits from a balcony on to a deserted carpark ten storeys below, then they start dropping other things; an old TV that doesn't work, a blown loudspeaker, beanbags, other unwanted furniture…Then they get carried away and start dropping things that are still working, while wrecking the rest of the apartment. But mobile phones start ringing and they're told to turn on a TV, because a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Centre. At ease with the volatility of modernity, Iain Banks is also our most accomplished literary writer of narrative-driven adventure stories that never ignore the injustices and moral conundrums of the real world. His new novel, displays his trademark dark wit, buoyancy and momentum. It will be one of the most important novels of 2002.

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Iain Banks

Dead Air

© 2002

For Roger

With thanks to Mic and Brad


‘You’re breaking up.’


‘Never mind.’


‘See you later.’ I folded the phone.

This was three weeks before the stuff with the Clout club and Raine (sorry; the stuff with the Clout club and ‘Raine’) and the taxi and the road under the railway bridge and the window and the nose-biffing incident and basically the whole grisly West-to-East-End night experience when I realised some bastard or bastards unknown seriously wanted to harm me, or even – and this was according to their own threats – kill me.

All of which actually happened not far from here (here where we’re starting; here where we’re picking up our story precisely because it was like the start and the end of something, a time when everyone knew exactly where they were), all of it probably within sight, if not a stone’s throw, of this raised here. Maybe; there’s no going back to check because the place where we’re starting’s not there any more.

Whatever; I associate what happened in one place with what happened in the other, with things beginning and finishing and – like the first tile in one of those impressive but irredeemably geeky record-breaking domino-falling displays that people stage in sports halls, where one tiny event leads to a whole toppling, fanning, branching cascade of tiny events, which happen so fast and so together they become one big event – with just stuff generally being set in train, being pinged from a rest state into restless, reckless, spreading, escalating motion.

‘Who was that?’ Jo joined me at the parapet.

‘No idea,’ I lied. ‘Didn’t recognise the number.’

She pushed a short glass into my hand. There was ice in the whisky and an apple squatting on top of the glass like a fat red-green backside on a crystal toilet. I looked over my shades at her.

She extracted a strip of celery from her Bloody Mary and clinked my glass with hers. ‘You should eat.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Yeah. Precisely.’

Jo was small with very thick black hair – cut short – and very thin white skin – variously pierced. She had a wide, rock-star’s mouth, which was sort of fitting as she did PR for the Ice House record label. Today she was looking vaguely Drowned World-era Madonna-ish, with black tights, a short tartan skirt and an old leather jacket over an artfully ripped T-shirt. People, not all Americans, had been known to call her cute and feisty, though not normally twice. She had a temper, which was why I automatically lied about the phone call even though I had no reason to. Well, almost no reason.

I hoisted the apple from the glass and took a bite. It looked shiny and great but tasted of nothing much. Jo was probably right that I ought to eat something. Breakfast had been some orange juice and a couple of lines of coke each. I did very little of that stuff these days, but I had this theory that the last time you want to get coked up is late at night when you just make your body stay up way beyond the time it wants to and you therefore stand a good chance of missing the next day; snort during the hours of daylight instead and sort of slide off into alcohol as the evening descends, so maintaining something remotely like the body’s usual rhythms.

As a result we hadn’t eaten much of the wedding brunch at all and probably should force ourselves to eat a little, just to keep things on an even keel. On the other hand the apple was pretty unappetising. I put it down on the chest-high brick parapet. It wobbled and started to roll towards the drop. I caught it and steadied it before it could fall the hundred or so feet to the pitted asphalt of the abandoned car park beneath. Which was not, in fact, totally abandoned; my pal Ed had left his gleaming new yellow Porsche at one end, near the gates. Everybody else had parked in the almost unnaturally quiet and empty street on the other side of the old factory.

Kulwinder and Faye had lived here in the not-yet fashionable bit of London ’s East End north of Canary Wharf for a couple of years, always knowing that the place was likely to be demolished at any time. The red-brick building was over a century old. It had originally made stuff with lead; mostly lead soldiers and lead shot (which apparently needed a big tall tower to drop little spits of molten lead down into a big water pool). Hence the height of the place; eight tall floors, mostly full of artists’ studios for the last dozen years or so.

Kulwinder and Faye had leased half the top floor and turned it into a big New York style loft; spare, echoing and vast. It was as white as an art gallery and it didn’t really have many readily identifiable rooms; instead it had what stage people would call spaces. Mainly one big space, full of minimalism, but very expensive and artfully arranged minimalism.

However, some developer had finally got their planning permission and so the place was getting knocked down in a week or two. Kul and Faye had already bought a place in Shoreditch. Buying seemed to encourage the need for further commitment so they’d got married this morning and Jo and I were two of the fifty or so guests invited to the wedding (I couldn’t make it; show to do) and the subsequent feast back at the loft. Not, like I say, that we’d eaten much.

I frowned and dug into my glass to hook out the ice, dropping the glistening blocks on the wide brick parapet.

Jo shrugged. ‘That’s the way it came, hon,’ she said.

I sipped cold whisky and looked out towards the unseen river. The roof terrace faced south and east, producing shadowed views beneath the scattered clouds floating over the towers of Canary Wharf and the unending cluttered flatness of Essex. A cool wind chilled my wet fingers.

I didn’t like it when Jo said ‘hon’. Thought it sounded like an affectation. She said ‘daunce’ sometimes, too, when she meant ‘dance’. She’d grown up in a posh bit of Manchester but she sounded like she was from somewhere between Manhattan and Mayfair.

I looked at the slowly melting ice cubes puddling on the brickwork and wondered if there were similar little things about me that were starting to annoy her.

I flicked the lozenges of ice overboard, down to the cratered asphalt of the car park.

‘Ken; Jo. How you two doing?’ Kulwinder joined us.

‘Fine, Kul,’ I told him. He was wearing a cool black suit with a white shirt and Nehru collar. Skin as rich and glistening as dark honey; big liquid eyes, currently shielded by some silver-framed Oakleys. Kulwinder was a gig promoter and one of those annoying people who was effortlessly stylish, never more so than when they went back to some old fashion people had half forgotten but which – when picked up again by somebody like Kulwinder – everybody suddenly realises actually looks pretty good. ‘Married life still suiting you?’

He smiled. ‘So far so good.’

‘Nice suit,’ Jo said, touching his sleeve.

‘Yeah,’ Kul said, holding out one arm and inspecting it. ‘Wedding present from Faye.’

Faye was a journalist/newsreader on the radio station I work for; she and Kul met at one of our after-show pub afternoons. I think I’m on record on air describing Faye as ‘comely’.

‘When do you head for NYC?’ I asked. They were honeymooning in the States; New York and Yosemite. Just for six days due to Kul’s gig work and the move to Shoreditch next week.

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