by Jon Arnold
There are certain circumstances, flukes of timing, which mean certain works of art are indivisible from context. That can range from a certain song or book catching you at exactly the right or wrong point in your life through to the capturing of a zeitgeist or coinciding with major world events. How you relate to something will often be decided by simple synchronicity.
Such is the case with Iain Banks’ final book, The Quarry. The circumstances surrounding it will be well known to anyone with the remotest interest in it – as per usual practice with Banks he’d written and delivered it early in the year. Then he went to see his doctor about some pain in his back. That pain turned out to be an advanced cancer, which left him with a diagnosis of months to live, hence the publication of The Quarry being brought forward at his request so he could see it on the shelves. He announced it in typically mordantly witty fashion on his website, cancelled all engagements, and made plans to spend his last months doing things he’d always meant to do, catching up and saying goodbye to the friends who really mattered to him. His remaining time proved to be shorter than anyone would wish, the cancer taking him a mere couple of months after his diagnosis.
I discovered Banks years later than most and through his science-fiction. During my first year of university, I’d signed up with the town library and, almost at random, grabbed Use of Weapons. I devoured it inside a day, putting coursework on hold to finish it. It was intelligent, witty writing, ingeniously structured and with a killer twist at the end that changed the way you read the book. I know it did because I read it again almost straight away, something I rarely did even then. And I spent the remainder of the 90s catching up and then keeping up with his output as best as time and money allowed. As you do to a lot of old friends when you fall in love, I fell out of touch with him at the end of the decade. Well, it was that and the A Song of Stone incident – finely written as it is it was, it was just too bleak and nihilistic for me. We did have the odd dalliance again down the years, me picking up the odd book at random, often to be added to the ever expanding to read pile (now a fairly large bookcase rather than a pile). It was always comforting to see his name on the bestseller list, reminding you that hey, a lot of people do have taste and they could keep him in whiskey and fast cars. And then I picked Transition out of that overflowing bookcase towards the end of 2012 and was reminded why I’d liked him so much in the first place – his casual toying with big concepts, his willingness to follow through on logical consequences of them and his ability to craft interesting characters. And that I could still forgive him that he wasn’t great at endings. The ride was usually so good it almost didn’t matter that not everything was wrapped up. I hooked back up with him, filling in a few more holes via the local second hand bookshop.
And then that announcement came, and then the second announcement in a bleakly short time. I hadn’t gone to the memorial website and left the tribute I’d meant to. I didn’t take the opportunity to let him know how much his work had meant to me over the years and how some of the convention anecdotes about him from friends had amused me greatly at that late hour when you’ve had enough to be merry and garrulous. There’s a lesson hard learned and easily forgotten, simply saying thank you to those who’ve meant something to you whilst they’re still around.
Which leads to The Quarry. Almost absurdly neatly, it’s a book about a terminal cancer victim saying goodbye to people he knew, a wake whilst the dead man’s still with us. Even more absurdly for me given when I encountered Banks it’s about people my age, with most of the cast right down to the year. And yet Banks was almost disappointed that this was the note he was to end his career on (though notes for a further Culture novel were apparently made). Typically he’d rather have gone out with a grand flourish, something as wild and mad as Transition, rather than the literary fiction he’d used to infiltrate the world of books. Sometimes writers can be wrong though, given his final skiffy novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, was about subliming (the equivalent of death in the Culture) and The Quarry is very much about mortality it’s difficult not to wonder if his subconscious was trying to tell him something. But that’s writing history in retrospect, bending the facts to fit a convenient narrative, assuming characters speak for an author and making a neat story of it as humans are wont to do. Banks didn’t receive his diagnosis until the book was virtually finished. Even if with Banks you can often assume some characters are being given leave by the author to air his frustrations with the world it’s just as likely these are the sort of mortal thoughts that get more prevalent as you get older and – with or without a medically diagnosed deadline – become more and more aware of how short and fragile life is. But if that diagnosis did colour the book – and I’m not saying it did – the final sentiment is an apt and truthful one to go out on. Whatever our age, ultimately we’re all staring at a hole in the ground.
Essentially then this is the Banks version of Peter’s Friends/The Big Chill (delete according to age and nationality), updated for Generation X. It’s all about the passing of time, though the choice of protagonists means it never feels like a grumpy old man moaning. Banks is far too wise a writer for that – he’s clever enough to note that few, if any of us, achieve the worldchanging dreams of youth and, even if we come close to it, it’s never quite what we think. How can it if we don’t know the mundane details? Instead, the point is that any generation is simply caretaking it for the next one, pre-eminent but no more or less important. But even with the possible borrowing of those movie reference points (and the reunion was the dominant theme of Banks’ literary fiction in recent years) then there’s a possible postmodern twinkle in Banks’ eye with a minor point about the passing of time being how shared references date you – here it’s via music and a lack of recognition at The Fast Show catchphrases. Younger or older folk (or in these days of everything being available forever, simply those with different reference points from the great heaving mass of culture) will make different references to make that point. The twist in presentation is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of Kit, the autistic son of the soon to be deceased Guy. That lets Banks have his cake and eat it, while Kit’s commentary obviously flavours the narrative, to a certain degree he can get away with the more usual dispassion of the third person authorial voice and a certain degree of ambiguity about actions and motivations. It’s a very sympathetic portrayal of autism, acknowledging that it brings both problems and benefits – in one scene toward the end a revelation is dealt with rather than igniting conflict and it strangely feels like an understandable reaction from a strange boy.
The plot itself is a simple chase of a McGuffin – an ancient embarrassing video – and the story, the real joy of the book, lies with Banks’ skill with characters and their interplay. Even Guy, the terminally ill misanthrope, is a sympathetic character, helped by some wonderfully Banksian rants. The violence, aside from a minor moment at a key point, is confined to those splenetic rants, but even then there’s a wit that takes the edge from the anger.
In the story of Banks’ career then, this is the full stop and will be read as such. And yes, on the surface there are moments and themes where the finality of it seems appropriate. But the moments in the book such as the rants and warmer moments where the characters still care speak differently, that this is a writer whose essential love of humanity and annoyance at its foibles, errors and occasional bad habit of electing Tory governments still had more to say. The Quarry may often literally gaze into a metaphorical and literal abyss but it does so with a twinkle in the eye.