Read an exclusive extract of The Quarry

Iain Banks goes out with a bang: His final book, The Quarry, is very, very good

Brian Morton hails Iain Banks's final novel and salutes his incredible journey

In the final issue of his periodical The Rambler, Dr Samuel Johnson says there is something “hateful” about last works: an unwelcome expectation of cadence, of summing up and farewell. Everyone by now knows the circumstance that dictates this is Iain Banks's last book. He died of inoperable cancer last Sunday. Publication of The Quarry, his 27th novel since the succès d'horreur of The Wasp Factory in 1984, had been brought forward in hope that he would be around to launch it and read the first reviews.

There is likely to be a firm, and not merely sympathetic, consensus. It is a very good and very typical Iain Banks novel, if there is such a thing, and perhaps its only nod to terminal cadence is that it is also in passing a rather good Iain M Banks novel – that being the name he used for his science-fiction books.

Banks is relatively unusual in having split his career into parallel but separate streams. Perhaps only Michael Moorcock has been more nimble in his negotiation of genre, or more prolific. Banks began publishing science fiction in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, the first in a nine-decker sequence known collectively as The Culture. At a moment like this, and with Dr Johnson on hand, one might look for, more than usually, autobiographical writing from Banks.

It was widely thought that his 1992 novel The Crow Road, a new kind of Bildungsroman from Banks, was taken from the life. It was a title that came back into the headlines this week, “Away the crow road” being a Scots expression for death. Reading the whole body of work in retrospect, as some of us have been doing since Banks's announcement of grave illness in February, suggests that the real autobiographical stuff may be buried away in The Culture. But can it also be quarried out of this last book?

It is, to be sure, very much concerned with death and with the messy process of dying, but one looks in vain for any grand sign of closure – not until the curtain is ready to fall, at least. Its real central character and narrator is not the dying man but his Asperger's son, a motherless boy dumped on Guy's doorstep in retribution for one of his serial shags. Kit, short for Kitchener, is somewhere on a spectrum from spectacularly bright to obsessive-compulsive and lives most vividly in a sci-fi game world called HeroSpace.

As a man about to take his leave, Banks is permitted a few statements through the proscenium. Cancer is an “unwilled suicide where… one small part of the body has taken a decision that will lead to the death of the rest”.

But there's a stronger example: “Reality is the boring motorway journey to the exciting place where you actually want to be” is a fine manifesto for fantasy. Meanwhile, HeroSpace is a good metonym for fiction itself and a better metaphor than the large quarry that has for years shaken Willoughtree House and threatens to engulf or collapse it as soon as its human occupants depart.

In his dying state, Guy is also given some leeway, to misbehave and curse, smoke and drink in defiance of his meds, sometimes to weep helplessly, and to bully his boy and sole helper with a concentration that bespeaks a kind of love rather than cruelty. Also in the house are a group of old university friends and former film-studies colleagues, each of whom has gone on to bigger and better things or to helplessly arrested versions of their younger selves. There's “Uncle” Paul, who fixes legal jams for media people. Haze might as well still be at Bewford Uni, rolling blunts and borrowing cash. Pris is a single mum and a hopeful romantic. Rob and Ali, a couple, speak entirely in the hyphenate language of corporatism.

The sharp-tongued Hol, a highbrow film critic, is the likeliest candidate for Kit's mother. He's the perfect witness, a sharp-eyed and eared collector of data who has had to learn, mostly from Hol, how to read perfectly ordinary situations and pick up the inflection of ordinary conversation. He makes for an interesting kind of unreliable narrator; one so painfully conscious of his own shortcomings that we're almost inclined to trust him, though we might also dimly remember what happened between fathers and sons in The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road and exercise some squeamish caution.

The friends are gathered at Willoughtree not for a premature wake – the kind of thing that has been conducted on the internet and doubtless in private since Banks announced his terminal cancer – but to locate the book's McGuffin. The only item that seems to have escaped Kit's hoarding is an embarrassing videotape – not sex-related, the friends assure him, but incriminating to all – that they made at university. Its existence triggers a backward glance at their lives and at the mystery of Kit's existence.

Given the hasty completion of a book that Banks lived long enough to see in print, if not in public circulation, there are inevitable slips, or apparent slips. It was, for instance, Dennis Potter not Harold Pinter who dubbed his tumour “Rupert” (after the media proprietor), but then one wonders if this is a deliberate mistake and if Banks is steering us simultaneously to the realist/science-fiction split of Potter's own last works, and to the broken communications and stilled lives of Pinter's plays. It's a sign that we are dealing with a narrator who doesn't know everything after all and is most interesting when he doesn't.

It's also a sign that in Banks we had a novelist of supreme subtlety and one who, in fiction as in life, and for all the concentrated horror of his debut novel, all the epic estrangements of his “skiffy” (sci-fi), and all the grimness of his final months, had an irrepressible sense of fun that is evident on every page of The Quarry. That we lost him so early is pretty hateful, but he leaves on a high.

Brian Morton is co-author, with Richard Cook, of 'The Penguin Jazz Guide'

Exclusive extract:  the opening of ‘The Quarry’

Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.

This is probably because I’ve had to think about who I am and who I’m not, which is something your average person generally doesn’t have to do. Your average person has a pair of parents, or at least a mother, or at least knows roughly where they fit into all that family business in a way that I, for better or worse, don’t. Usually I think it’s for the better, though sometimes not.

Also, it helps that I am very clever, if challenged in other ways. Challenged in this context means that I am weird, strange, odd, socially disabled, forever looking at things from an unusual angle, or however you want to put it.

Most things, I’ve come to understand, fit into some sort of spectrum. The descriptions of myself fit into a spectrum that stretches from “highly gifted”at one end to “nutter” at the other, both of which I am comfortable with. One comes from understanding and respect, while the other comes from ignorance and fear. Mrs Willoughby explained the thinking behind both terms. Well, she explained the thinking behind the latter term, the offensive, deliberately hurtful term; the thinking behind the former, respectful judgement seemed perfectly clear and valid to me. (She got that wincing expression on her face when I mentioned this, but didn’t say anything. Hol was more direct.)

“But I am clever.”

“I know. It’s not the being clever that’s the problem, Kit. It’s the telling people.”

“So I ought to lie?”

“You ought to be less… determined to tell people how clever you are. How much more clever you are than they are.”

“Even if it’s true?”

“Especially then.”

“But–”

“Plus, you’re missing something.”

I felt myself rock back in my seat. “Really?”

“Yes. There are different types of cleverness.”

“Hmm,” I said, which is what I’ve learned to say rather than the things I used to say, like, No there aren’t, or, Are you sure? – in what was, apparently, a sarcastic tone.

“If nothing else,” Hol said, “other people think that there are different types of cleverness, and that’s what matters, in this context.”

One of the ways I am clever is that I can pay very close attention to exactly what people say and how they phrase things. With Hol this works especially well because she is quite clever too, and expresses herself well, and mostly in proper sentences (Holly is a journalist, so perhaps the habits of her trade have had an effect). Also, we have known each other a long time. With other people it can be harder. Even Guy – whom I’ve known even longer, because he’s my dad, after all – can be a bit opaque sometimes. Especially now, of course, as he’s dying. They don’t think there is a tumour in his head affecting his mind, but he is on a lot of mind-muddling medication.

‘The Quarry’ by Iain Banks is published by Little, Brown (£18.99)

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine

 

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers