Book review: The Quarry by Iain Banks

IF THE science fiction novels that he has produced as Iain M Banks are characterised by kaleidoscopic complexity, and his “real world” works often powered by extravagantly imaginative nastiness, it’s nonetheless clear that part of Iain Banks’ vast popularity is down to the breezy, everyday directness with which he’s able to communicate.

The Quarry

Iain Banks

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Little, Brown, £18.99

While he might like to depict extremes of human behaviour, and to garnish his tales thereof with outré twists, he’s not one for high-flown language, or dense emotional exploration. This determined ordinariness can give his fiction a flat-footed quality, but it’s also a considerable factor in its appeal. It’s certainly very much to the fore in this latest work, for which he has rested the wilder extremes of his imagination in favour of an intimate, low-key shaggy dog story about family, friendship and the hard-to-swallow realities of middle age.

Our narrator is a youth named Kit whose two primary occupations in life are an online role-playing game called HeroSpace, and the care of his father, Guy. Kit, as he puts it, fits “into a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other”. Guy, meanwhile, is dying of cancer.

And there it is: the Big C, the word we’d all like to banish from discussion of Banks and probably never can again. Most readers will know that this is, according to his own prediction, probably Banks’ last ­novel; while he continues to undergo treatment, he expects his own cancer to kill him inside a year.

This fact makes it tough but illuminating to read his depiction of Guy. It’s typically wry of Banks to make his fictional cancer patient no blessed victim suffused with newfound wisdom, but a pretty direly unpleasant man. Guy treats those around him – his long-suffering son and the group of university friends he’s invited over to pre-mourn his death and deal with some unfinished business – with only marginally less rage and contempt than he extends to the symptoms of his disease. So while Banks does permit himself, via Guy, a little raging against the dying of the light, there’s neither sentimentality nor self-importance in the depiction. Indeed, Guy is to some extent the butt of the book’s darkest joke: what does a dying cynic and misanthrope have to complain about?

Also thoughtfully counter-intuitive is Banks’s treatment of Kit, who, as someone on the autistic spectrum might also be deemed “diseased” by some. There are also those who theorise that such people are not disordered so much as advanced: that their conditions represent pragmatic evolutionary adaptations to a modern lifestyle that requires logical problem-solving and fondness for routine over need for social bonding and awareness of emotional nuance. Banks doesn’t make that argument in his book per se, but it is strongly indicated that Kit’s way of ­being in the world presents advantages as well as encumbrances.

Kit is lonely and sexually frustrated; his obsessive time- and money-saving habits jar on others’ sensibilities; and since his instinct is to be abrupt, he has to think out his verbal communication in order not to offend people. But it’s apparent that his slightly blunted emotional affect in some ways eases his passage through life, compared with the complicated systems of attachment and detachment, jealousy and one-upmanship, insecurity and egotism in which his father’s friends are enmeshed.

Guy’s appalling symptoms and consequent curmudgeonliness stir neither pity nor self-pity in Kit; he just gets on with what’s required of him, granting Guy’s cruelties a blank response that robs them of destructive power. When Kit discovers a surprise betrayal by someone who had appeared to be an ally, again there are no hysterics: rather than interpreting the affront or punishing it, Kit judges it practically, on its apparent motivation and likely fallout. Sexual rejection receives similarly straightforward processing: “I feel we’re still friends… I’m disappointed she wasn’t prepared to be a bit more adventurous.”

It’s not that Kit is romanticised as some sort of sainted savant, but there is a sense that his particular mode of thinking has helped him to fast-track straight to the kind of wisdom for which the older folks around him still strive. Crucially, Banks, doesn’t sneak around behind his narrator’s back, giving us access to truths that Kit reports but can’t understand: he genuinely gives Kit’s viewpoint primacy, and through it lets “neuro-typical” readers query their own preoccupations.

This is, then, a state-of-the-self book, a meaning-of-life book, as one might expect from one in Banks’ condition – but one that presents itself so mildly and casually that it’s more than halfway through before you clock that nothing much is actually going to happen.

And maybe that’s the point: that the stuff of life, the stuff you’d feel the loss of most keenly if you were leaving too soon, constitutes stoned conversations, college memories and hopelessly out-of-date catchphrases from The Fast Show, more than the sort of dramatic MacGuffins deployed by writers to impose structure on shapeless, illogical old reality. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill