I have been unable to think about Iain Banks ever since without also thinking of this bon mot; it is a disarmingly apt description of Banks's fiction, if you are going to be a little snide about it - affectionately snide, if such a thing is possible. It alludes to the sometimes lumbering, clanky nature of his prose style; to the almost cumbersome way you feel his novels are not so much written as constructed; but also to the very heart of his imagination: the way he loves machines, gizmos - whether sleek and mean DVD players or charmingly Heath Robinsonesque contraptions made of wire and string. They're there from the beginning, in the springs and cogs of the machine that gave his first novel, The Wasp Factory, its name. As a character in Whit, his last novel but one, puts it: "There are occasions when I find pieces of technology I can't help liking." And as that character belongs to a nutty religious sect which frowns long and hard at the 20th century, that is some endorsement.
So now it is time for another Iain Banks novel. Not an Iain M Banks novel - that's the sci-fi writer who has man and machine living together in a society called "the Culture". Drop the M and you have instead the creator of skewed, catchy sagas such as The Crow Road, weird road novels such as Whit, anti-capitalist thrillers such as Complicity, or Grand Guignol horrors like The Wasp Factory. And what is the blueprint for this one? What bits of steel and carbon, what joists and girders have been mined and forged together this time?
The imaginative Meccano that Banks has constructed is another one of his "What if?" speculations: a construct, treated as real, and followed to its logical conclusion. (What if my father was mad and I wasn't a boy at all? - The Wasp Factory; what if we have no free will but are in fact controlled by drooling galactic criminals? - Walking on Glass; what if someone started killing off horrible capitalist despoilers of the planet? - Complicity). Here it is this: what if there was an ultra-secret capitalist organisation, not necessarily pulling all the strings in the world, but a good few of them? How would it be run? What kind of dirty tricks would it pull? Would it pull dirty tricks? What would its employees be like? What kind of ranking and reward system would it have? How would it go about, say, getting a seat on the UN?
The Business, this latest novel, answers all these questions. But what is really remarkable about it, at least at first sight, is the way that its main trick consists of allowing Banks to show you how potentially admirable such an organisation could be. Which is odd, given his previous declarations of contempt for Conservative politicians and free-market prophets.
The heroine and narrator of The Business is one Kate Telman, a Level Three executive in The Business. Adopted, in almost Dickensian fashion, as an eight-year-old scallywag from a Scottish housing scheme in 1968 by another Business woman, she has risen fast and high in the organisation thanks largely to some shrewd guesses about the IT industry, and subsequent advising of where and in what to invest. This woman is, we learn, attractive, resilient, brave; but, above all, like us; she is nice. We like her; we're meant to like her. We're meant to be positively delighted in the company of her adoptive uncle Freddy, a rung lower down than her in The Business but the owner of an outrageously enormous country home and several vintage sports cars, which he loves driving at speed, as long as there aren't any caravans on the road (traits which Banks, quite reasonably, shares).
It is odd that a novelist who started off with the memorable horrors of The Wasp Factory should now have, as his most striking characteristic, a kind of - for want of a better word - niceness. It is indeed a word he uses himself, dividing his non-sci-fi novels into the categories "nice" and "grim". The Business is nice; The Business - his invented organisation - is ... well, nice enough to have someone like Kate Telman working for it.
It starts with a man who has woken from a drugged stupor to find that almost half his teeth have been extracted, for reasons he cannot imagine. "Looksh random," he tells his boss. "Can't shee a pattern or anything. Disherent on top and bottom, disherent on each shide ..."
Here we have the typical Banks construction: what would you do if the same thing happened to you - given that you live in a world of ultramoney, behind-closed-doors wheeler- dealing, seriously private jets? You look for a pattern. (As it turns out, there is one. But you have to wait a long time to see what it is.) You engage your brain to see what is going on; and you try to make sense of what you find. You infer and deduce; which is life, or the understanding of life, seen as an end- product of the scientific approach.
It is this lack of metaphysical complexity, his almost religious respect for nuts and bolts ("evangelical atheist" is how he describes himself, and how Kate Telman describes herself, too) which, I suspect, contributes significantly to Banks's huge success as a writer. For he is terribly successful, as far as sales and reader loyalty go; and it might have been awareness of this that accounted for the mordancy of my friend's jibe. A poll by a BBC website in March announced that, as far as people who answer such polls on BBC websites are concerned, Iain Banks is the fifth greatest writer in the history of the planet (Shakespeare, Austen, Orwell and Dickens did better.)
Now, we all instinctively know the fatuity and uselessness of such exercises, but they at least tell us what a certain kind of person thinks; and if the demographics of website-responders are too bizarre and dependent on strange criteria to be psephologically useful, they do set off trains of thought. Like, the next most favoured author, after Banks, was Tolkien. Which tells us ... what? That Banks's constituency may not be the self-consciously "literary" reader.
This is something that Banks is very much aware of, to the point almost of chippiness. The chippiness is no longer there in interviews - which, in any case, have passed on from the Usefully Insightful Profile to the My Favourite Breakfast kind of interview - which may be because he can laugh off literary condescension on the way to the bank; but his disdain for the high style was always there. I recall his saying that the real creative urge behind The Wasp Factory was to write the kind of novel he wanted to read himself; and there is still this behind his writing, but at a basic and almost naive level, as if it had not occurred to him that even Saul Bellow's output could be explained in a similar way.
But he likes the old-fashioned verities and struggles of plot and story. In a 1997 interview with the Times, he told Robin Eggar: "The assumption that one is too intellectually well developed to want to be bothered with plot or story really p me off .... I like plot. I like story. There aren't enough people trying to write the stuff I try to write without being remorselessly popular and pandering to the lowest common denominator. To surrender the idea of a decent plot to the likes of Jeffrey Archer is moral suicide. But I want to be clever with it. I want to do the twiddly bits, the cunning stuff that has hidden meanings. I want to impress people with the size of my O-levels."
Note: not A-levels, or his degree from Stirling, which is in English literature, philosophy, and psychology, and which he once revealingly admitted was "total nonsense and had no bearing on my actual writing". Revealing, because his characters since The Wasp Factory, and maybe not even there, have little psychological surprise or depth to them; it is difficult to come across a character who is not, at heart, informed by the same likeable, generous, fun-loving and highly tolerant decency that so obviously makes Banks tick. (It is this, as well as the rollicking nature of his stories, his popularity with the public and, yes, his Scottishness that make me think that comparisons with Robert Louis Stevenson are not wide of the mark. You can imagine the two of them having a whale of a time together.)
So it's surprising that The Business is strangely devoid of plot: it ambles around the world - if you can amble in a Gulfstream jet - while being continually astonished at the niceness of its leading character. So tolerant is Banks becoming (he saves the torture scenes, you feel, for his marginalised sci-fi) that he no longer even has it in his heart to condemn capitalism. It is perhaps what happens when boyish enthusiasm - that love of playing with train sets, bits of machinery - is carried on into adulthood.
Readers can trace that enthusiasm in themselves: Banks's novels are loved by his fans, I think, because they feel that they are the kind they wouldn't mind writing themselves. But as Iain Banks can pop them out every year, they might as well let him do it for them instead. And why not?
'The Business' is published by Little, Brown on 12 August at pounds 16.95.