Cults and consumers
Whit by Iain Banks Little, Brown, pounds 15.99
Saturday 26 August 1995
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.
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