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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on