June 21, 2013 7:14 pm

Do not go gently

A valedictory from Iain Banks, both on and off the page
An illustration of a quarry©Shonagh Rae

The Quarry, by Iain Banks, Little, Brown, RRP£18.99/Redhook, RRP$26, 336 pages

 

It was only in April that Iain Banks announced that he had inoperable cancer of the gall bladder; he had been told he might have a year to live. Two months later he was dead. There is a certain authentically Banksian irony – macabre, gothic, even cosmic – in the fact that he had written almost all of what was to be his last novel, The Quarry, before he was diagnosed: the pivotal character in the book is also a man dying of cancer.

Banks initially thought the insistent back pain he was suffering was the result of sitting too long while writing. When the source was revealed instead as a tumour the publication of The Quarry was brought forward so that, before he died, Banks could see it take its place on his shelves alongside his 14 other works of literary fiction and the 14 science fiction novels he had written as Iain M Banks. As an “evangelical atheist” he had no illusions of postmortem consolations.

There are other coincidental neatnesses about this book. Like his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), it has an unusual teenage narrator. Like The Crow Road (1992), The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) and Stonemouth (2012) it is about a man and a family home. It shows Banks’s longtime fondness for the MacGuffin. There is a sense, in hindsight at least, of the completed circle about the book.

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Without hindsight, though, this is a straightforward, almost old-fashioned piece of fiction. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place in one location, a crumbling northern house scheduled for demolition that sits on the edge of a quarry. Gathered for one last time are a group of friends who 20 years earlier met in the Film and Media Studies department of the nearby Bewford University. They have come to see Guy, the leading light of the group who is now in the last stages of cancer, and to find a compromising video they made as students. Recounting the events of the long weekend is Kit, Guy’s 18-year-old son who doesn’t know who his mother is, and who has an Aspergers-like condition that puts him on a “spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other”.

The friends are hardly characters at all. Hol, the most three-dimensional of them, is an unsuccessful film critic. Paul is a media lawyer and would-be MP; Rob and Ali corporate apparatchiks with a media search company; Pris a single mother and Haze a doped-up loser. Kit, the holy innocent, has traits (stirring his tea a certain way, stacking the dishwasher just-so, hunting down supermarket special offers) rather than a personality.

It is Guy – raging, foul-mouthed, pitiless and wedded to the world view of his youth – who holds both Banks’s and the reader’s attention. Among the sarcastic joshing (fuelled by drink and drugs) that is their conversational norm it is Guy who has the best lines and the real spark of believability. He is a monster but a compelling one.

Guy is a pyrotechnic swearer; barely a sentence escapes his lips that isn’t laced with profanities. He was like that before the cancer but the disease gives his venom a focus. His invective is aimed at “this island’s pathetic, grovelling population”, at consumerism, the royal family, climate change deniers, racists, the rich, the government, Americans . . . but it is the disease that makes him most inventive because he is “scared to fucking death . . . just at the thought of not fucking being any more”. The fear makes him turn on his friends because they are healthy and particularly on the son who dresses him, feeds him and, in one memorably distressing scene, wipes his bottom.

This splenetic loquacity carries with it both insight and humour. So “a fatal cancer is a kind of unwilled suicide,” Guy notes, “where, initially at least, one small part of the body has taken a decision that will lead to the death of the rest. Cancer feels like betrayal.” Facing it with positive thinking, however, is not an option: “You might as well walk into a burning building and try to put out the fire through the medium of modern dance.” The rest of the novel, including the closed-circle mystery elements – the tape, the missing mother – is doused by the weight of such torrents.

In his last interview Banks said of The Quarry: “If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.” It is a notably clear-sighted judgment of the book as a work of fiction.

Given his circumstances, it is impossible not to read the novel as a work of autobiography too, his equivalent of a cancer memoir – albeit that Guy’s rants are the opposite of the dignified way Banks spoke about his own disease. Because of this, and because it represents the conclusion of a distinctive literary life, the book is not a minor piece at all.

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