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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