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?”
“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