Little, Brown £18.99

Review: The Quarry, by Iain Banks - A funny, stupid, pointless, infuriating, glorious, humane, smart farewell

In his final novel, Iain Banks – who died last Sunday aged 59 – writes with the brilliance, honesty and vitality that were his great gifts

Let's face it, reviewing this book objectively was always going to be impossible, but sometimes in reviewing, just occasionally, objectivity can go to hell.

There was already a great deal of poignancy hanging around The Quarry when Iain Banks announced two months ago that he had terminal cancer and that it would be his last book. It was rushed into print but sadly the author's death last weekend meant that although he saw finished copies, he wasn't around to see it hit the shops.

That poignancy increases tenfold once you open the cover of The Quarry and realise that it's about someone dying from cancer. In an interview Banks stated recently that he was well into writing the book before he got his prognosis, but his own situation has clearly had a profound effect on the content and mood of the novel, which is a quietly incendiary piece of writing, at times heartbreaking, at other times really wonderfully funny.

The set-up is a familiar one to Banks's many fans, and the tone is reminiscent of his big set-piece family novels such as The Crow Road and The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

The Quarry is set over a drunken, drug-addled weekend in a dilapidated old country house owned by Guy, a man in his early forties in the last stages of terminal cancer. The story is narrated by Kit, his 18-year-old son. Kit is on the spectrum of Asberger syndrome, and while that's a pretty familiar technique in modern literature Banks handles it brilliantly and injects something fresh into it – Kit's outlook on the world is not seen as a handicap necessarily, and is often an advantage, giving him a clearer view of the world than the jaded, confused and disappointed friends of Guy's who turn up for a weekend of reminiscing and airing of long-held grievances.

There are half a dozen former Film and Media Studies college mates of Guy's in attendance, all of them hitting 40, older but not necessarily wiser. Holly is a struggling movie critic, Paul is a corporate lawyer with an eye on a Tory candidacy, while Alison and Rob are a jargon-spouting couple who work for a search engine company. Completing the ensemble are Pris, a care worker, and Haze, a stoner with financial worries.

Banks has always been brilliant at ensemble writing, especially dialogue, and the vast majority of The Quarry is just that – drunken banter, acerbic asides, moments of touching honesty, political rants, and tirades of just about every other flavour.

There are three plot engines thrown into the mix but these are really red herrings, a familiar Banksian trope. Firstly, Kit is keen to find out the identity of his mother before Guy dies, as he has been raised by Guy in isolation his whole life. Secondly, there is the search for an apparently incriminating videotape that the gang made back in their youth. And thirdly, of course, there is the matter of Guy's imminent death, which hangs heavy over every action and conversation the group has.

The quarry of the title only comes into play latterly, a large gaping hole in the ground just past the garden wall of the house Guy lives in. Willoughtree House is to be knocked down when Guy dies and the rock beneath it dug out as part of the ever-expanding quarry, a metaphor for life and death that Banks plays with a delicate hand.

The true genius in The Quarry is twofold. Kit's deadpan narration is used not only to expose the petty squabblings of Guy and his entourage, but also to give a kind of clear-eyed pragmatism to life in the face of adversity. In contrast Guy is a gloriously awful creation, treating Kit like shit at every opportunity, ranting and raving about the state of the world, humanity, and his own shitty luck at dying too young.

Because ultimately, that's what The Quarry is all about.

It's a kind of raging against the dying of the light, but one mixed with an acute awareness of the nature of human frailties. Despite obvious outrage at every kind of social and personal injustice, and a deep sense of disappointment and failure that this generation hasn't done better, this is still, somehow, a profoundly humane, funny and smart novel, much like the author himself.

That, in the end, is Iain Banks's gift to us over nearly 30 books, a brilliant, piercing depiction of just how funny, stupid, pointless, infuriating, glorious, mind-bending and inane life can be. And that's why he's been a constant inspiration to me as a novelist and a human being.

"I hate the thought of the world and all the people in it just going merrily on without me after I'm gone," Guy says at one point. "How fucking dare they?"

Indeed, how fucking dare we?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there