Iain Banks’ The Quarry has been sitting on my desk waiting to be read and reviewed since it was published in June, a date brought forward so Banks could see it on book shelves before his untimely passing. When Ian Rankin said recently that he didn’t want to read The Quarry because it would be a reminder that he had lost his friend, it was easy to understand what he meant, even for those of us who only really knew Banks through his books. Some artists mean more to us than we can truly understand; put far too simply, they make our lives better. Banks was such a writer for me. He changed the way I viewed the world, and I am all the better for it.
That may sound melodramatic, it probably is, and I want to review The Quarry with as little of that as possible. However, it is impossible not to read the novel without Banks at the forefront of your mind. That is because there are few writers who put themselves on the page as honestly and openly as he did, and in this case you can find him in every character if you look for it.
The book opens with preparations being made for a reunion of old friends. Anyone who remembers the 1992 film Peter’s Friends will understand the premise, but for those who don’t they are gathering because Guy, one of their number, is terminally ill, and the others have come to support him. But, as this is Banks, there is more to this than meets the eye. A lost video tape, one which seems to have a hold on all of the visitors, takes on greater importance as searches become more frantic and Guy’s health deteriorates. Is it a sex tape, is it a will and testament, or is it a red herring? It could easily be all three.
The narrator, Kit, is an 18-year-old who is described as ‘socially disabled’, although all he does is tell the truth without the sugar coating of social niceties, white lies, and empty gestures, something which I’m sure Banks saw as a positive. Kit is the innocent observer, learning more about his father and friends than is possibly healthy. The reunified group originally met at Uni, where they were very close, seeming to have at one point shared everything, including each other. Kit has grown up not knowing who is mother is, although he has his suspicions, and those mostly focus on his father’s female friends, especially Hol, who, if this was to be the case, would mean a serious Oedipal complex for Kit to add to his already considerable problems. The fact that his father has never disavowed his son of such notions, and at times has encouraged them, seems unnecessarily cruel, but then Guy is the most complex and compelling of characters.
He is a dying man who is railing against the dying of the light, and anyone who steps into its path. His fear of dying, which often comes over as rage, is visceral. For him the idea of ‘not exisiting’ is almost too much to bare, and it is heart wrenching as he lashes out at those who deserve it least. Like so many of Banks most famous characters, including Frank (The Wasp Factory), Prentice McHoan (The Crow Road), Ken Nott (Dead Air) and Cameron Colley (Complicity) Guy is not easy to like. Banks has always had an eye for human weakness, one keener than most, and while he often saw the good in people, he was only too aware of the capacity to fail.
The Quarry centres on the human relationships between the group, how they fall into their old roles, regretting the past while simultaneously longing for those days. The group are a reminder that we don’t grow up, we just grow old, and that is the most difficult thing to deal with. It is instructive that when they are faced with their own mortality their bond grows stronger. Banks, again, shows the strengths and weakness of individuals, how they can inspire then fail you, sometimes in the same speech. The Quarry is a book of reflection, not only for the writer, but also for the reader, especially those who have travelled with Banks over the last 30 years.
Some reviewers have said that they were disappointed that a book such as The Quarry was Banks’ last novel, to which I’m sure he would reply, ‘Not as much as I bloody am’, but what they are missing is that it is part of a singular body of work that few can come close to. Some have claimed that the novel is a ‘greatest hits’ collection of Banks’ best bits. That view is shortsighted and wrong. Banks’ greatest hits are all of his books, and like all such collections there will be some tracks you like more than others, and some which will grow on you in time (for me, A Song Of Stone is one), but they all work together to make the whole, and if you are a fan of Banks you will not be disappointed by The Quarry. Lets face it, if you’re a fan of Banks, you already have it.
The Quarry has many of the themes and ideas which readers will recognise. Dysfunctional families with dark secrets, the past coming to haunt those in the present, good people who have been corrupted, and some who have been saved. There are political rants and moral dilemmas along with the twists and turns of the plot. Banks liked to set his readers puzzles because he wanted to make them think, and think for themselves. The political and moral points of view that you can find in all his novels are not mere proclamations, but one side of a conversation, and it’s up to the reader to make it a whole.
Iain Banks was introduced to readers in 1984 with The Wasp Factory, a book which also had some decidedly sniffy reviews, but for all the accompanying shock and eugh it also heralded the appearance of one of Scotland’s most interesting and innovative writers. It was angry and uncompromising, and there is the same anger and refusal to bow to anyone in evidence in The Quarry. If you haven’t read any Iain Banks, I would suggest you start at The Wasp Factory, and then you have such a wonderful journey ahead of you. At the end of The Quarry life goes on, and while it will never be quite the same again, everyone is enriched by what went before. That’s why this book is important to me, and why I’m glad I’ve finally read it.