writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Quarry, by Iain Banks: a review

It would be possible to carp at some aspects of Iain Banks’s novel, The Quarry.
The imagery of a dying man in a house full of memories and secrets, about to disappear in the name of commercial exploitation of the land, has probably been done before. One could say some of the characters go little beyond what they represent – the corporate lawyer heading for Parliament, for example, or the bitter but unrepentant socialist.
One could even say some of the rants – about how debased our Western economic and political systems have become, not to mention the general beastliness of mankind unto mankind through the ages, with no visible signs of improvement – go on a bit, however much one might agree with some or even all of the sentiments.
But then, how could you, knowing that this was a novel about a man dying of cancer written by a man who, shortly after he finished the first draft, discovered he was dying of cancer.
For those of you who don’t know me and are reading this review in isolation, I should declare an interest. I knew Iain Banks – not well, but well enough to have spent a long weekend with him and others, years ago, and to correspond with him in his last days. He also happened to be the closest I’ve ever had, in writing terms, to a hero, and his words to me in his last letter to me to ‘keep writing,’ are imprinted somewhere pretty deep. There are other, more personal reasons why the book’s themes would strike a chord I won’t go into.
Briefly, the Quarry concerns a reunion of old university pals in a crumbling house they used to share, two decades before. The reunion is at the behest of Guy, the house’s owner, who is dying of cancer. He and his friends having been film students, there’s a lost video tape somewhere in the house that everyone has an interest in finding.
When Guy dies, the house and its contents will disappear into the nearby quarry, leaving Guy’s autistic son Kit, the narrator, with no fixed abode, and no known surviving parent – the identity of Kit’s mother being the other mystery to be solved by the end of the novel.
Over the course of a long weekend the friends drink, argue, take drugs, argue, rant about things, begin a search for the tape, take on more drink and drugs, argue and rant some more, until… I won’t spoil the denouement, but it’s well worth waiting for.
Having a psychologically different narrator with a game-playing, unreliable father and absent mother is, to some extent, full circle for Banks, and there are some similarities between Kit and Frank, the central character in his first published novel, the Wasp Factory. Kit is a much gentler character, however, and in many ways less damaged by life, despite being on the autistic spectrum.
The story is told throughout in typical Banks lapidary prose: there are funny sections, not laugh out loud necessarily, but Kit’s ruminations, on why so-called emotionally intelligent people say the things they do, often raise a smile.
As for those things to carp about I mentioned, the concept of a memory palace crumbling into a dust created by the passage of time and money is a potent one; the characters might represent various viewpoints, or coping methods for the vicissitudes of the UK’s last twenty years, but they are, at least by the end, more fully fleshed out: Paul, the corporate lawyer, and Holly, the recidivist socialist, are in particular not all they initially seem to be.
And the rants – well, they’re really, really, good rants. I think I know why Banks set this in some fictional English red brick university town, rather than Scotland. It takes the current topic of Scottish independence (which Banks supported) out of the equation, to leave the more universal issues of capitalism, socialism, mass poverty, and the ethics of modern existence generally.
That said, however, the drink-fuelled arguments – and rants – sound entirely familiar to the ear of this Scots graduate. Whether they rant and argue as much at a northern English educational establishment as we did at Edinburgh, I couldn’t say, but it wouldn’t exactly surprise me.
I mentioned there were few laughs, but smiles of recognition instead. That shouldn’t disguise the fact that this is a dark novel, which stares the grim Reaper right in the eye, and then spits. The description of the practical and emotional baggage for a cancer victim and his main carer living day to day is unflinching, and though the last pages offer the glimmer of optimism for Kit, no single idiocy of our modern existence is left without a skewer through its black heart.
Banks had already painted several masterpieces before this, both in his mainstream work and his middle-initialled science fiction. This last novel ranks among them. Rest in peace, Iain.

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Just to show this blog isn’t turning into a series of rants about bankers, here’s something a bit more creative – a Spanish translation of my short story, Blink. Incidentally, you can listen to (and download) the English version by following that there link.

No había nada de malo, pensaba sentándose en la cama. Pequeña, pero no puede esperar más en la media de la ciudad. Fue las paredes de su cráneo que eran la cárcel.

Arrojó su chaqueta y se aflojó la corbata, pateando sus zapatos en una esquina. Uno de ellos golpeó el zócalo y entonces se cayó, dejando una mancha sobre la pintura.

La habitación olía a fresco; el tráfico retumbaba a la distancia. Caminó de puntillas a lo largo del cuarto en sus calcetines, la cola de su camisa se balanceaba en su caminata.

Al este extremo, la cama. Al otro, un bloque negro, la televisión, sobre un estante.

Si usara servicio de habitación, no tendría que salir por días. Oculto, desconocido, bajo otro nombre. Cuando dijo que pagaría en efectivo, insistieron en que cobrarían las primeras tres noches por adelantado.

No habría un problema: ha agotado las cuentas. Ha perdido sus tarjetas de crédito, le dijó a la recepcionista. Fueron robadas, en realidad.

Le miró, juzgándole como adultero. Pensando de este ahora, él rió en alta. Si solamente ella supiera.

No quería encender la tele, aunque sabía que no estaría en los titulares. Una tragedia más en esta ciudad de sirenas chillidos. Nada nuevo.

Todo lo mismo, encontró el mando a distancia cómodo en su palma, el suave botón rojo bajo de su pulgar. Se instaló sobre sus codos, esperando la salva de sonidos, de colores.

Entonces se incorporó.

Al principio, pensó que la forma fue un tipo de icono, una imagen que usado el hotel cuando la encendió. Le tomó unos momentos resolverse en el dorso de la cabeza de un hombre.

El hombre se sentaba sobre el borde de una cama, en una habitación de hotel, mirando la televisión. Se podía ver uno de sus zapatos cerca del zócalo, donde una mancha parecía creciendo.

Escudriñó más allá de la cabeza del hombre en la pantalla de la tele. Allí, el mismo miraba una tele, con el dorso de la cabeza próxima apenas visible sobre la pantalla próxima en la distancia desapareciendo.

Entonces percibió sobre su cuello la respiración de viento de la pestaňa, y cometió el error de darse la vuelta.

You’ll be hearing from me

Curiously, I always thought it was Alan Clark, the Tory historian and political diarist, who coined the phrase, ‘never apologise, never explain,’ and that this had somehow been twisted over the years since into ‘never complain, never explain.’ He is, after all, the guy who, when his wife complained that he had met his mistress while they were on holiday in Paris, asked why she couldn’t be more French about it.
However, both quotes appear to be attributed to all sorts, including Disraeli, Evelyn Waugh, and the Duke of Wellington, and I don’t really suppose it matters who said what. Like most Brits, I guess, I wish I was the kind of character who never apologised, but instead spend my life using the word ‘sorry’ in contexts of genuine apology and beyond on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Try to get past someone in a shop. ‘Sorry.’ Mishear something. ‘Sorry?’ Take umbrage. ‘Well, I’m sorry, but…’
Again, like most Brits, I rarely complain. It hardly ever feels like it’s worth the effort. However, I was recently moved sufficiently by the Royal Bank of Scotland and all its works to write a letter of complaint, and here’s the gist of it. I’ve taken out some content – don’t want the likes of you lot knowing all my business, don’t you know. If I get an amusing reply, I’ll let you know.
However, in the event that I’m not carted off, mouth lightly foaming, to the Twilight Times Home for the Permanently Discombobulated, I hope to have something more interesting for you soon – including a review of The Quarry, the last novel by Iain Banks.
To: Ross McEwan, CEO, Royal Bank of Scotland plc
Dear Mr McEwan,
I’m writing to complain about a number of issues, some of which concern your Glenrothes branch, but some of which are clearly outwith the control of an individual branch. Accordingly, I thought I would write to you in the first instance: I appreciate I’ll be passed down the line, but if you actually have a moment to read past this first paragraph, you might get a feel for how an ordinary customer – one of thirty years’ standing, who doesn’t generally waste his time complaining – feels about your bank.
Firstly, can I say how sad I am to see the Royal in its current parlous state, half-dead in the water, being kept afloat by the public sector. Some of the issues I’ve encountered in the branch may be simply down to low staff morale, but I also get the sense that the bank, having got bigger in boom times, has now become so compartmentalised that it has what’s often described in local authority circles as a ‘silo culture:’ that would certainly explain the complications I encountered last year when trying to conclude the final repayment of my offset mortgage, when it seemed unaccountably difficult for one part of the Bank to speak to another.
That sense was reinforced recently when I went in to discuss how I might deal with matters following my father’s death. He was also a long time Royal Bank customer, and I had what I thought was a fairly simple question or two about how I should deal with his account in the immediate aftermath of his passing. However, the member of staff I dealt with was more interested in passing me straight to an Estates team, although I would, of course, have to make an appointment. She also seemed rather keener on stressing how busy they were at lunchtimes than offering any kind of condolences for my loss.
This theme of how busy your staff are returned when I asked to speak to someone about my own accounts – I was hoping to see what the Royal could do in terms of improving my current arrangements with them, whereby my wife and my main joint account and two savings accounts receive a vanishingly small amount of interest (of which more later).
The first – mildly comic – effect of my interaction with the member of staff on the Inquiries desk was a result of her being unable to check appointments on the computer at the counter. This meant that every potential date and time had to be checked by trotting back and forth from the counter to a desk where a computer showed an online diary.
However, I may say that my appreciation of the humour of the situation evaporated, slowly. I asked for a lunchtime appointment, and was twice offered 2.00 p.m. appointments. When I suggested this wasn’t really lunchtime, I was told that only one of the relevant staff was on at lunchtime. How inconvenient of me to have a full time job myself! My last attempt was any time on a particular day, but again your staff were just too busy to see me. I gave up at that point, and began to look at what other banks had on offer.
If you have read this far, Mr McEwan, that would be the point I would want you to take on board. Like many other of your customers, I am thinking of taking my business elsewhere – and a cursory glance at what the other banks have on offer, makes such a prospect a far more attractive one than waiting around to see someone at the Royal. The competition appears to be beating you hands down at the moment for interest rates, and customer service.
To give you just two examples of this: a) some of our savings are currently at [Bank A][, in a bond which, two years ago, had 4% interest. If your bank had something to compete with that, I didn’t get to know about it; and b) [Bank B], with whom I also opened an account a few years ago because they offer a fairer exchange rate system when we’re withdrawing money abroad, managed to arrange an appointment within days and were able to outline, in full, the current and other savings account options which, I think without exception, offered a better deal than we get from your bank at present.
In fact, the only reason we haven’t changed banks before now apart from being too busy is probably that I have, up until the last few years, always had pleasant and – relatively – efficient service at the Royal. That last point in your favour now seems to be disappearing.


Please be assured, Mr McEwan, I really don’t get around to letters of complaint – life is too short; and I know from my own job that they end up being dealt with by employees lower down the organisation who don’t really have the power to change much that could solve the problems enumerated. The fact that I have taken the time to write really should be an indication that you guys are struggling.
I look forward to hearing from you with your thoughts.
Yours sincerely,