Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Steep Approach

I finished up Iain Banks' The Steep Approach to Garbadale a couple of days ago. Took me about a week, and it felt like a faster-than-usual read, though it's not like I spend all that much time reading fiction for the sport of it (at least not these days). Faster than expected, a surprisingly engaging novel, a story well told--exactly as promised in the approbative cover matter.

The upshot: Alban Wopuld deals with a hiatus from the family circle, resurfacing at the behest of a cousin who recruits him to stir up dissent among family members in favor of approving the sale of their rights to a popular game, Empire!. Alban re-emerges as an influential presence in the family, all the while coping with two formative events from earlier in his life (and, in different degrees, these events are at the root of his alienation): his mother's suicide and a cousinly love affair.

This little summary doesn't ruin it. And I fully intend to be getting along with other novels by Banks just as soon as...one of these days. I only had time for this one because I am purposefully neglecting the diss for a couple of weeks while on a back-to-back conferences jag (seriously, it must appear that I have been shitting around for a couple of weeks now; lazing through some books about maps, etc.). Anyhow, by this point, I sure I have done enough to pique your interest in The Steep Approach that I should give a little bit more, so, then, two passages from dog-eared pages:

Also, third, she tried to quantify how hopelessly, uselessly, pathetically weak she felt. It took a long time--she was a mathematician, after all, not a poet, so images were not normally her strong suit--but eventually she decided on one. It involved a banana. Specifically, the long stringy bits you find between the skin and flesh of a banana. She felt so weak you could have tied her up with those stringy bits of banana and she wouldn't have been able to struggle free. That was how weak she felt. (220)

This comes as VG--Alban's other love interest--remembers swimming near a reef when the disastrous tsunami welled up from the Indian Ocean in '04.

One more, on where are the numbers?:

Verushka and Aunt Clara are talking:
'I don't understand. What can that mean, "Where are the numbers?"'
'I think it means, Do they exist as abstract entities--like physical laws, as functions of the nature of the universe; or are they like cultural constructs? Do they exist without somebody thinking them?'
...
'Alban got me thinking about it this way.'
'Alban? Really?'
'Yes. He said, "Where you left them," which is pretty much just flippant, but there's a wee grain of possibility there and so my answer to the question, "Where are the numbers?" is, "Where do you think?" See what I'm doing there?'
'Not really. That sounds flippant too.'
'Well, it sounds it at first, but if you take it out of the context of flippancy and treat it as a new question in its own right, you're asking, Where does your thinking happen?'
'In your brain?'
'Well, yes, so if you use one question as an answer to the first, you're saying the numbers exist in your head.'
'Mine feels rather tight at the moment. Like it's about to burst with numbers and odd questions.'
Yeah, I get that a lot. Anyway. It's more interesting than just saying, "The numbers are in your head," because otherwise why put it in the form of a question at all? Why not just say that?'
'You mean, say, "The numbers are in your head"?'
'Yes. Because then it becomes a question about boundaries.'
'Boundaries.'
'When you think about numbers, are you using a little bit of the universe to think about it, or is it using a little bit of itself to think about itself, or, even, about something--about these entities called numbers--that might be said to exist outside of itself, if one uses one of the less ultimately inclusive definitions of the word "universe"?' Verushka sits back, triumphant. 'See?'
'Not really,' Clara admits. 'And my old head is rather starting to spin.'
'Well, to be fair,' Verushka agrees, 'it's an incomplete answer. But I like the direction it's going in.'
'That all sounds very fascinating,' Graeme says.
'It is, isn't it?' Verushka says brightly before turning back to Clara as she says,
'And you do this for a living?'
'Not this part, no; this is just for fun.' (270)

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