At the time of his death from cancer this June, Iain Banks had written twenty-seven books. He was the rarest of creatures, a writer acclaimed (by critics and fans alike) not just for his literary fiction, but also for the science fiction novels he wrote as Iain M. Banks. It is hard to think of another author who crossed genres and melded audiences with a comparable level of success. In both his incarnations he aimed his wry wit and boundless imagination at contemporary society, creating sometimes disturbing characters whose recognizable humanity – and this includes the spaceship minds too – ensure a popularity and appeal that made him one of the greatest writers of his generation.
In his last interview, Banks confessed that he wished The Quarry was not his last book. His choice would have been to end with a final installment of the science fiction series that he wrote as Iain M. Banks, featuring the Culture, a far future intergalactic utopia that has evolved beyond the demands and constraints of monetary economy.
The Quarry is set firmly in our own world, and narrated by Kit, an awkward, computer-obsessed youth who early on acknowledges his own weirdness. Kit considers his true existence to be the many hours he spends online, playing an interactive game called HeroSpace. But real life is much tougher than that fantasy land of complicated codes of behavior, warriors and artificial intelligences. He lives in a crumbling house on the edge of a quarry with his father, Guy. The book opens with the impending visit of Guy’s college roommates who are coming to pay their last respects – and to search for a missing videotape of a film they made together as students. The contents of the tape are potentially damaging: they are all agreed that it cannot fall into the wrong hands. Guy, at this point, is obviously living out his last weeks; he is in pain, heavily medicated and cannot remember what he did with the tape. Or so he says.
The hunt for the incriminating film during one long, sometimes drug and alcohol-fuelled weekend takes up almost the entire action of the book. The reunited group cannot, in truth, still be called friends: there is Hol, the acerbic film critic whose career has stalled, warring couple Rob and Alison who have sold their souls to the corporate world, anxious, do-gooding ex-social worker Pris, Haze, who exists in a drugged fug and Paul, a lawyer with political ambitions. They’ve long since lost whatever it was they had in common years ago, life has disappointed some of them, others carry the dissatisfaction of not having lived the lives their youth promised. And as a group, they embody many of the social ills of contemporary Britain – a lack of political engagement, the failure of idealism, dissatisfaction and a preoccupation with amassing wealth. These are themes familiar in much of Banks’s fiction, especially the later novels. Guy himself, the centre of their attention, is facing death with a fury against the world that he hurls indiscriminately at anyone within his reach, but mostly at his son.
Kit is an engaging narrator. His wit is bone-dry and his adolescent preoccupations provide needed relief from the ugliness and despair of the adults around him. He’s constantly trying to work out how to moderate his conversation and behavior to acceptable normality, has inappropriate sexual longings for the much older, and not obviously attractive Hol, and he’s woefully dogged in his determination to overcome his disgust and attend to the intimate physical needs of a father who does not show him much affection. If this wasn’t enough for an awkward young man with a house full of unhappy, bickering guests to contend with, there’s also his need to find out the identity of his mother. Guy has made up several stories through the years – some more outrageous than others – and none of the friends gathered will discuss the subject.
Banks was reportedly well into writing this book when a visit to the doctor for persistent back pain led to a diagnosis of cancer — a plot twist so cruel it seems beyond even his imaginative genius. Guy’s rants against his disease, and the unhelpful, unasked for exhortations to try alternative remedies or positive thinking, are poignantly eloquent.
When the tape is indeed finally discovered, the tension explodes into a violent free-for-all of truth-telling that shows off Banks’s keen eye for character and dialogue, and a sense of just what will hit home with lasting effect. There is anger here: at death, at betrayal, at society. But here too is Banks’ genius: at no point does the reader feel distant from the characters. In the last chapters of the book Kit observes that “[life is] a process, like many others, but short enough for those of us with the time and interest to observe it and draw our own comparisons, if we’re that way inclined.”
This is Banks’ final gift to us. While The Quarry is not his best book, and may not even make it onto my list of his top three, it doesn’t disappoint. One may dislike some or all of the characters – and there is much to dislike – but there is no escaping the persistent nag of recognition.
Ellah Allfrey is deputy editor of Granta magazine. She lives in London.