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Book Review: Executive distress

The Business by Iain Banks Little, Brown, pounds 16.99, 393pp; Fiction's wayward wizard takes on global capitalism. By Charles Shaar Murray
Which of the following three novels would you prefer to read?

Option One: an archetypal chunk of aspirational Women's Rubbish centred around a high-flying female executive with a hectic international lifestyle, admired by colleagues and desired by just about every heterosexual male she encounters, including the besotted prince of a remote Himalayan principality. Despite the occasional dalliance, she only truly desires one man, senior to her in the company, but he is unshakably loyal to his wife. He is unaware, though, that said wife is, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies, "huffing an affeeah". Our heroine knows the truth, and she has evidence to prove it. Telling him would break his heart. What should she do?

So far, so Jackie Collins. Then there's Option Two: a seriously twisted thriller which commences with one of the characters meeting a Babe in a club, going back to her place, and then waking up in his own home with half his teeth missing. Someone is sending someone else a cunningly-veiled message. Who, and what?

Or maybe you'd prefer Option Three: an extremely dark account of the internal politicking and position-jockeying within a shadowy global organisation which owns almost everything, runs almost everything, is little less than Capitalism Incarnate, and for which the word "conspiracy" is almost inadequate. In fact, the operation is better-known to full-time conspiracy theorists - who identify it as everything from a Machiavellian Trotskyist group intending to bring down capitalism from within to an alien plot run from a buried spacecraft in New Mexico - than to the general public.

Well, you're in luck. You don't have to choose. The Business is the latest novel from the terrifyingly prolific Iain Banks. Under this name he has now generated ten seriously deranged literary novels which spin genres like William Friedkin spun Linda Blair's head, plus eight violently unorthodox science-fiction endeavours under the singularly cunning pseudonym of "Iain M Banks" - and all since 1984.

The Business is the organisation in which Kate Telman, our narrator and protagonist, works. Just as, in the author's SF universe, The Culture is the culture, here The Business is the business. In fact, we should probably drop the definite article. The Business is business itself. And it always has been: "a commercial organisation which has had many different names throughout the ages". Its origins "predate the Christian church, but not the Roman Empire, to which it might fairly be said we owe our existence, and which, at one point - technically, at any rate - we owned".

The failure of that particular acquisition came with the fall of the Emperor Julian ("the front man for a loose consortium of traders and money- lenders who had inherited a commercial cabal already many generations old") and put The Business off "seeking direct political power". Until now.

Its current project is the acquisition of its own country - which is where the remote Himalayan principality comes in - in order to acquire a seat at the UN, not to mention diplomatic immunity. Considering that large corporations already command more wealth and influence than small countries, this would seem a trifle superfluous for the corporation which, Banks tells us, is the secret power behind all the large corporarations we know about. (The Business "bought into Microsoft on its initial flotation back in the eighties"). But this notion kickstarts the plot.

Kate Telman was "acquired" when she impressed a senior Business executive, as a snot-nosed eight-year-old in Glasgow, by displaying serious commercial acumen - selling-on Penny Dainties for a penny-ha'penny. Adopted by the exec, educated within The Business, she is its creature and creation. Her loyalty is unquestioning and she cannot imagine life outside The Business, though each and every day she acts upon those who live outside its orbit, unaware of its very existence.

Telman is not precisely an "unreliable narrator", but she manifests an astonishing degree of doublethink. She is capable of characterising General Pinochet as "an old fascist mass-murderer" and then pointing out that "as a company we kept on good terms with whoever was in power in Chile during the Allende years, Pinochet's regime and subsequently". Elsewhere, she remarks, "Rumours that I've heard indicate that our Swiss Bank may be implicated, however marginally, in the recent Nazi gold scandal, which, aside from the morality of it all, is both careless and embarrassing, given the occasional cooperative venture we've taken on with the Rothchilds and the generally good relations we've enjoyed with Jewish enterprises over the centuries."

Telman identifies herself as a "socialist feminist". She "tithes" approximately 10 percent of her presumably vast income to good causes and is given to expressing leftish sentiments not dissimilar to the author's in post-prandial debate with fellow Business execs. But her "principles" do not prevent her from doing - and enjoying - her job. The central dilemma of The Business is whether the twain will ever meet. How can a person with ethics function in business, let alone in The Business?

Throughout the novel, Banks asks this question - what happens to "decency" under capitalism? - of Telman in a variety of ways. On a personal level, she comes up trumps every time: honest, loyal, courageous and selfless. She's a do-the-right-thing gal through and through.

The author rams this home with a series of phone conversations, dropped into the novel, with an airhead Californian friend who can be relied upon to define the self-serving option and argue its case. Banks motors his plot along by making Telman cope with two dilemmas and a puzzle, solving the latter (who pulled out her workmate's choppers, and why?) in splendidly Holmesian style.

As we have come to expect from Banks over the years since his sizzling debut with The Wasp Factory, The Business is written with enormous energy, crunchy wit and more curves than an Alpine road.

Located in time by the references to Cerys of Catatonia, Dr Frasier Crane and the Pinochet arrest (not to mention the truly excellent South Park joke), and bristling with all the detail of high life in the fast lane - exclusive Websites, DVDs, Lear jets, expensive clothes, collector-grade cars, primo-quality drugs - this is a poisoned bonbon, a bitter fairy tale predicated on the assumption of a world in which the victory of capitalism has been so thorough, so complete and so final that individual acts of decency and compassion are the only possible forms of opposition.

One is reminded of George Orwell's famous criticism of Charles Dickens: that for all his sweeping indignation and his passionate indictments of the manner in which the poor are forced to live, there is no suggestion that anything much can be done, much less that the victims of the system might be capable of any action which might alleviate their condition.

All Dickens can propose, suggested Orwell, is that the rich and powerful should be nicer and behave better. Orwell, quite correctly, considered this to be an inadequate response. So does Banks. But it's the only option which Banks has left open for Telman.

Ultimately, Banks has expanded to book length Bertolt Brecht's dictum, from The Threepenny Novel, that the criminality of robbing a bank is dwarfed by the criminality of founding one. For once, however, the promotional slogan rings true. The Business is the business.