Cults and consumers

Whit by Iain Banks Little, Brown, pounds 15.99

With the Church of Scientology now involved in litigation against the Internet nerds who posted their "secret" teachings around the system, it seems a good time for a satire on the subject of cults. And who better for the job than the average Internet user's favourite writer, Iain Banks. Banks writes science fiction as "Iain M Banks". His fellow SF fan L Ron Hubbard, by contrast, dropped a letter from his name to become the founder of Scientology. One hopes that Banks's Luskentyrian cult, unlike Hubbard's, will never stray far from the printed page. They're a quaint rather than a sinister bunch - a mix of Plymouth Brethren, Mennonite and Scientologist. They believe in the sanctity of their leader, Salvador, a 75-year-old Scot who has set up their technology-rejecting, self-sufficient commune near Sterling. Bizarre rituals involve Sloan's Linment, a pat of kitchen lard and a sex orgy every four years. It's very silly, but Banks makes it all totally plausible.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Isis, a 19-year-old cult member experiencing the outside world for the first time. A male writer takes a risk in writing as a female in a lead role (Banks makes it easier on himself by having her a bit boyish and a bit lesbian) but she's a sympathetic and strong character. She is being groomed as the next leader of the commune and anticipates the task with engaging but youthful gravity. Isis's sudden and inexplicable rejection by the Luskentyrians while away on a mission for them in London, and her subsequent sexual molestation by her grandfather Salvador, prompts her to devise a plan to turn the tables on the men who control her life. It's pure Fay Weldon, leavened by a dash of Hanif Kureishi.

Notable cameos of the young and marginalised litter the book. Banks uses the Luskentyrians as a way of anatomising Britain's underclass, and manages it in great style. Who, he asks, feeds off whom? He avoids being too obvious in his targets - one of the most beguiling characters is Isis's Texan grandmother, who brings a little far-right free marketeering to the already potent mix. Anarchy, it seems, comes in many guises. Godless society breeds a moral vacuum. But, as Banks shows, so does a Godful society. Cults are merely another manifestation of consumerism. An appetite for God is still an appetite.

Whit is utterly contemporary, yet its literary antecedents are clear: the gothic novel and the picaresque novel. We get the Innocent Abroad and the Imprisoned Female side by side. We have an intense examination of contemporary morality conducted on the template of an unalloyed young woman. Banks manages to write in both the classic idiom espoused by Hampstead bluestockings, and the grungy journalism of fashionable magazines. His satire is exquisitely poised, his storytelling gripping. Though I don't expect (or hope) to see members of his Luskentyrian faith hawking this book on Tottenham Court Road, I will be keeping half an eye out for it on the Booker shortlist.

Roger Clarke

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