Death hovers over Iain Banks’s last novel but that doesn’t stop it being wonderfully exuberant, says Allan Massie
The Quarry by Iain Banks
Little, Brown. 326pp. £18.99
Some weeks ago Iain Banks let it be known that his cancer was advancing rapidly and that he had been given only a few months to live. Now he is dead, sooner than expected, and reviewing his last novel, The Quarry, is a sad task. For his many admiring and devoted readers the sadness will be both deepened and tempered by the enjoyment they will get from the book. Mortality broods over it. The narrator’s father, Guy, is, like the author, dying from cancer. It is galloping fast, painful and humiliating, and he rages against the prospect of extinction. Yet there is a wild humour in the novel too, and it is written with the life-enhancing verve characteristic of Banks’s best work.
Kit, the 18-year-old narrator, is a splendid creation: a tall boy, self-reliant, observing and affectionate, afflicted – if that is the right word – with Asperger’s syndrome and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, an expert player of a game called HeroSpace, which is where, he says, “I really live” (and from which he makes a good deal of money in a manner that baffles me), he is his father’s chief carer. Guy has never told him who his mother is, but he has, as it were, two surrogate mothers – his therapist (whom we never meet) and Holly, a Marxist film critic, an old university friend of Guy’s who is admirable and likeable. Guy and Kit live in a dilapidated country house on the edge of the quarry of the title. It is scheduled for demolition , but may last for the time left to Guy.
The novel takes place over a weekend. Guy has invited a group of old friends to stay. They were all at the same university more than 20 years ago, engaged in film studies, and would spend weekends at the house then, partying, drinking and drugging, and making home movies, some of them take-offs of famous films, or glosses on them. Guy’s ambition then was to be a film director; he never got further than working for a regional TV company. His career, like most people’s, has been less than he thought it would be.
The others have gone in different directions. Holly has stayed truest to the ideals of their youth, but in worldly terms is seen as a failure. Paul has become a successful lawyer, and hopes to become a Labour MP. A squabbling married couple, Rob and Ali, have made good in the world of big corporations. Asked to say just what they do, their explanation is couched in incomprehensible corporate-speak gobbledygook; very funny. Pris is a social worker with a new boyfriend whom the others regard as not their sort of chap. Haze is a sponging inadequate.
They talk, reminisce, gossip and score off one another, drink heavily, smoke reefers, and snort cocaine as, over the weekend, they look back at what they were, what they hoped to be, and either measure or deny the different ways in which they have failed. They’re a sad lot, really, and it is testimony to Banks’s generosity of spirit that the reader is likely to find time spent in their company to be enjoyable.
They haven’t, however, come to Guy’s house only to socialise and say good-ye to their old friend. There is also a quest ingredient in the novel.
One of the films they made when they were young has the potential to embarrass them all, and they are anxious to find the tape on which it was recorded. However there are hundreds, even thousands, of tapes stored here and there in the house, and so there is a search for the compromising one.
This drives the narrative along, but the reader may early expect that the tape is what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, the distracting device upon which the plot turns, but which eventually has no real relevance to the plot or its solution. The interplay of the characters is far more important, most of all, unsurprisingly, Guy‘s mixture of affection and resentment.
What gives the novel its charm is the tone of Kit‘s narrative, which is both touching and funny. His explanation of the principles on which he conducts his supermarket shopping is delightful. Banks also catches very convincingly Kit’s devotion to his increasingly difficult father and the occasional spurts of impatience which nevertheless flare up. Kit’s relationship with Holly, the other generally laudable character in the novel, is very well done; it’s tender and touching.
One assumes that Iain Banks was already in a bad way when he wrote the book. This makes its liveliness, even exuberance, all the more remarkable. The things that happen in the novel don’t make for happiness; yet happiness pervades the writing.
So giving this last treat of a novel to his readers is indeed a good way to go out. Many will read it with pain. Yet, if, thanks to its inventiveness and vitality, you are able to forget the author’s condition when he wrote it, you are also likely to read it with a smile on your face; remarkable.