We will miss Banks. He was born in 1954; his mother was a former professional ice-skater, his father was in the Royal Navy. After university in Sterling, he worked a succession of jobs, including a stint as a dustman and as a hospital porter, before finding his mark at 30 as a writer
The circumstances around the publication of Iain Banks’ novel, The Quarry, are extremely poignant. The book, which is the last of 29 he has published, hinges on a weekend reunion of old university friends at the house of the acerbic Guy who is “dying fast” from lung cancer.
Banks, one of Britain’s most popular contemporary novelists, discovered that he, too, was terminally ill in March. He announced to his fans in April that he was suffering from inoperable cancer of the gallbladder and that The Quarry would be his last novel. He died on Sunday, Jun 9, a week before it was published.
In a strange quirk, he had “written 90%” of The Quarry, which he began last October, before he found out about his own predicament, according to a final interview with The Guardian newspaper; however, Banks wrote Guy’s charged “I will not be sad to leave you bastards behind” speech towards the end of The Quarry after he discovered his own prognosis.
The bitter, resentful manner in which Guy deals with his illness couldn’t be more unlike the dignity and stoicism that Banks displayed. His trademark humour was a useful ally. He began the note posted on his website alerting the public that he was dying with the words: “I am Officially Very Poorly”.
The Quarry is set somewhere in the Pennines in the North of England, close to Newcastle. The old friends, who started university together in 1992, descend on Guy’s dilapidated old Victorian house, where he lives with his 18-year-old son “Kit”, or Kitchener.
Kit has Asperger’s syndrome, which causes him to look “at things from an unusual angle” and with charming forthrightness. It’s a condition that makes him an interesting narrator, particularly given his guests’ numerous indiscretions.
Guy, who failed to graduate after years of hedonism in university, was a few years older than his classmates when they entered college in 1992. They studied film media studies. The search for an old movie they shot while students, which could compromise them if it fell into the wrong hands (you can easily guess the film’s genre), forms one of the novel’s two plotlines; the other is Kit’s search to find out which one of the women may or may not be his mother.
Holly is a film critic. Pris, who split up from the loafer Haze after 11 years together, is a single mother and care services manager. The married couple Ali, “who used to be fat and now exists in a perpetual state of semi-starvation”, and Rob work for a high-flying search engine company.
Paul, a corporate lawyer, is on the verge of running for parliament with New Labour, a movement that has earned Banks’ scorn over the years. Famously, Banks ripped up his passport and posted it to Tony Blair in protest at the Iraq War (although he re-applied when his near-neighbour Gordon Brown succeeded Blair as prime minster).
The veneer of friendship slips off pretty quickly in a novel that brings to mind several movies, including Peter’s Friends, The Big Chill and especially the Quebecois film The Barbarian Invasions. Most of the friends’ antipathy towards each other stems from self-loathing, as the cast, on the verge of middle age ponder their unfulfilled potential.
“Like we represent anything worthwhile,” spits Rob, “like we’re anything else apart from a bunch of people who came together for a few years because we were in the same uni and the same department and then went our separate ways to our own pathetic individual disappointments, and became the sort of people we’d have run a mile from when we were the age we were when we first lived here.”
Guy, who is remarkably cold and cruel to Kit, believes that people are essentially “horrible,” although his assessment is obviously coloured to a degree by his illness. His rants, which echo several pet hates of Banks, are wonderful fare.
They include the apathy of young students today, too wimpish and conformist, Guy reckons. “I shall consider myself well rid of this island’s pathetic, grovelling population of celebrity-obsessed, superficiality-fixated wankers,” he says. “I shall not miss the institutionalised servility that is the worship of the royals — that bunch of useless, vapid, anti-intellectual pillocks — or the cringing respect accorded to the shitting out of value-bereft Ruritanian “honours” by the government of the fucking day, or the hounding of the poor and disabled and the cosseting of the rich and privileged, or the imperially deluded belief that what we really need is a brace of aircraft-free aircraft carriers and upgraded nuclear weapons we’re never going to fucking use and which would condemn us for ever in the eyes of the world if we ever fucking did. Not that we can, anyway, because we can’t fire the fucking things unless the Americans let us.”
We will miss Banks. He was born in 1954; his mother was a former professional ice-skater, his father was in the Royal Navy. After university in Sterling, he worked a succession of jobs, including a stint as a dustman and as a hospital porter, before finding his mark at 30 as a writer of both science fiction, which he preferred, and literary fiction. He remained a committed Scottish separatist, a lover of scotch and an “evangelical atheist”.
The Quarry is a decent note for him to depart on, if not quite one of his masterpieces like, say, The Crow Road, which was made into a television series; The Bridge, his favourite; or his debut novel in 1984, The Wasp Factory, which was dismissed by an The Irish Times reviewer as “a work of unparalleled depravity”, but went on to become his best-known novel, and announced to the world a writer that regularly shifted 200,000 books on publication.