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Book Review

Witty Corporate Satire Can Talk the Talk

THE BUSINESS by Iain Banks; Simon & Schuster $25, 400 pages

November 21, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Business" is a thriller and a satire on global capitalism, but readers will enjoy it most as a series of conversational riffs. British novelist Iain Banks ("The Wasp Factory") seems able to mimic any dialect in the English-speaking world, and he wastes no time showing off this knack.

A phone rings in the night. Kate Telman, a 38-year-old Level Three executive in a vast but shadowy commercial enterprise whose origin predates that of the Christian church, awakes and answers. A junior colleague is on the line. He sounds drunk. Only with great difficulty can he convince Kate that this isn't the case: He has been kidnapped, drugged and had half his teeth pulled out. The checkerboard pattern of the gaps between his remaining teeth will prove significant in the thriller part of the novel, but the real point of the episode is that Banks can have fun with the dialogue.

Ditto with the second episode, which takes place 30 years before the first. An Englishwoman traveling in rural Scotland and watching children play soccer is amused when an 8-year-old Kate tries to sell her penny candies at a 50% markup. She sees this urchin as a potential recruit for The Business, plucks her out of poverty and sends her to the finest schools. Again, the fun is in the dialogue--the haggling between the BBC-accented adult and the muddy little girl spitting Scottish profanity.

The Business, Kate learns when she grows up, isn't the sinister cabal Internet conspiracymongers accuse it of being. It keeps a lower profile than other international conglomerates but operates no less (if no more) ethically than they do. Banks' sense of fun extends to a sense of fairness that makes his satire all the more effective. The Business is . . . simply business. Its bosses, the Level Ones, don't want to take over the world, except as the incidental consequence of making more money.

Kate, an emerging-technology scout whose coups include The Business' early investment in Microsoft, is being tapped for bigger things. The Level Ones, who already have everything money can buy, would like a few perks still beyond their grasp: a U.N. seat and the security of diplomatic pouches. Strictly for commercial reasons, they want to acquire their own country. They are dickering with the tiny Himalayan principality of Thulahn, offering infrastructure improvements in return for control.

What Kate sees as her principal liability in the Level Ones' eyes--her social conscience--they see as a plus: Her charitable impulses will help keep the Thulahnese happy and docile. Besides, the reigning prince, an overweight, earnest young man named Suvinder, has met Kate and been smitten by her.

To Kate, The Business has always represented "rationality. Progress. Respect for science, belief in technology, belief in people, in their intelligence." But in the company of the Level Ones she begins to perceive the mindlessness at the center of all that calculation, the void underneath what's supposed to be the bottom line.

The boss she likes best, a fellow Scot, has nothing better to do with his money than drive sports cars and embellish his stately home. An American uses his 80,000-acre South Dakota spread as a firing range for his collection of heavy ordnance. Others go in for drugs and orgies. Though they defend their positions well--Banks is still playing fair--none is as serious a person as Suvinder, worried about how the takeover will affect his people.

Kate falls in love with the Thulahnese, if not with the prince himself. The teeth-pulling incident bothers her. So does a gift from Hazleton, the most powerful Level One: videotaped proof that the wife of the man Kate does love is having an affair. Such a gift implies an obligation: What does Hazleton think she owes him? Kate, who believes morality has to be "contingent," isn't comfortable taking a stand, but one seems to be demanded of her. Fortunately, so is a lot of juicy talk.

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