The Quarry, the final novel by Iain Banks, has striking but coincidental similarities to the author's own life, Anna Aslanyan discovers. Its protagonist, Guy, like his creator, is dying of cancer and he, too, expresses the desire to live
Book review: Iain Banks' final novel a poignant farewell
The Scottish author Iain Banks died on June 9, just before his last novel came out. My review copy arrived on the eve of this news, and two months after the author announced that he had terminal cancer.
Opening The Quarry, I could not help thinking about Banks' plight, hoping he would still be here not only to see the book, the publication of which was brought forward, but also to hear the first responses to it. The scenes where one of the main characters, dying of cancer, talks about his desire to live, when read on the day of mourning, felt especially poignant. The parallels between Guy's and his creator's own fate seemed uncanny: according to the author, they were a total coincidence as he had been diagnosed when nearly at the end of the first draft.
Throughout the novel, Guy's illness remains "entirely, perfectly personalised", much as his life story is of his own making. Having failed on all fronts - his career, family life and finances all seem to be in tatters - he is the first to admit that he's a "one-man vice squad". Yet, he passionately wants to go on, as her says: "I hate the thought of the world and all the people in it just going on merrily without me after I'm gone. How ****ing dare they? I should have had another forty, fifty years!"
The book is reminiscent of Banks' earlier fiction in several ways, while also referencing a range of topical issues discussed in Britain today, from celebrity sex scandals to the rise of the English Defence League, to the travails of the National Health Service. We see them through the eyes of the dying man, but also through the experience of a group of people closest to him, including his son.
The Quarry is narrated by Kit, a teenager living alone with his father, just like the protagonist of The Wasp Factory, Banks' 1984 debut novel that brought him fame. While this novel is set in the north of England rather than Scotland, and is without violence, the similarities between the two recluses are striking. Both are "normality-challenged teenagers", to use Banks' own words, but Kit, instead of murdering people, tries talking to them, with varying degrees of success. He has some form of Asperger's syndrome, which makes him an uncomfortable companion; he fails to see why people need small talk and has to be reminded: "Apart from anything else these meaningless replies are like saying 'Roger', or 'Copy that'; you're letting people know that you received their message."
However, Kit is clearly aware of his condition and understands the differences between himself and the outside world. The latter comes in two forms, "the real world, and those beyond". In other words, Kit's everyday life in a dilapidated house on the edge of a stone quarry, which is about to swallow it, goes on alongside his imaginary existence in HeroSpace, a popular computer game the boy has been perfecting his skills at for some years, reaching a high status in the online community and even earning some money in the process.
The cash comes in handy as Kit, his father's main carer, struggles to make ends meet. His obsession with the game is also something he can acknowledge when being serious about it: he is an ordinary teenager in this and many other respects, including his social clumsiness, geeky tastes and, occasionally, lack of empathy. But caring for the gravely ill man inevitably has an effect on him, and as he questions his own feelings towards his father, his personality shapes up in a unique way (which can probably be said about all teenagers, no matter how patently alike). On top of everything else, he does not know who his mother is.
While Guy's body is being eaten away by cancer, similar, perhaps no less ominous, processes are at work on the minds of the other characters; a group of friends who read film and media studies at a local university some 20 years ago. The novel spans a long weekend spent by the friends at Guy's house - a rare gathering, and not caused by entirely selfless motives on their part. They are there not so much to see their dying friend as to try to find a videotape made in their student days, which could, apparently, get them all in trouble.
The friends have grown apart over the two decades since the time when they shared the same house, the one they descend upon now. They include a corporate lawyer with an ambition to go into local politics, a shadowy football team manager, a former care worker who is now running her own agency, and a couple working for a multinational internet giant. There is also Holly, a film critic, whose connection to Guy and Kit is the strongest: she is the only one who cares for both, although, as Kit discovers, cannot be entirely trusted.
It is Holly who provokes heated discussions among the old mates, now goading them into an angry rant, now launching a diatribe herself. Militantly left-wing, she seems to express some of the author's own views, judging by Banks' journalism and interviews with him. The other characters are more conservative in their opinions, both political and cultural. The most extreme example is the corporate couple, Rob and Ali, who bicker incessantly and come up with such gems as "Pre-identing up-torrent crisis nodes and realitising positive issue-relevant impending-threat-modulated countermeasure envision-sets within the applicable statutory and regulatory challenge/riposte-space".
The most interesting thing that Banks manages to do with the group's conversations is to reveal them almost fully through Kit.It's not that his narrative comes from the mouths of babes - Kit does understand how grotesque the adults often sound, but the way he edits their dialogue stresses certain themes which would not otherwise be immediately obvious.
Another topic often explored by Banks, always from a highly critical perspective - religion - is also touched upon in this novel. If The Wasp Factory, in which the hero's life revolves around elaborate rituals, is a fierce, if symbolic, attack on religion, The Quarry is more laconic and straightforward in this regard. Kit believes that "faith is just mad; it's like you have to leap to the end of an argument, or discussion about something and act as though you've been convinced, even though you haven't been, and then, apparently - well, allegedly - it all makes sense."
There is a great deal of father-son antagonism, also dissected in Banks' earlier novels, although this time the father is dying, which opens up a whole host of feelings - or, occasionally, non-feelings - between the two. Kit has to help Guy with most intimate tasks, and is getting used to his role, but he is honest enough to admit that he has not experienced proper grief - not yet, at any rate. Eventually the barrier is broken down, and he mourns his father in the way people usually do, his assumed social inadequacy no longer a problem.
This tragicomedy of morals is gripping, full of suspense and has several surprising twists in store. Turning the last page, I felt sad as I knew full well that this was, indeed, Banks' final book. A stronger emotion, though, was the sense of language, fine-tuned to describe human condition in all its varieties, that these pages convey.
That the author's own voice will never again be heard is a huge loss, but his narrators, now joined by young Kit, are still there for us to listen to as we reread his books. Most of us are bound to detect some familiar notes in this chorus.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.