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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future