The Quarry, by Iain Banks (Little, Brown, U.K., 2013, US edition April 2014)

Three novels I recently read have a plot in common: an individual’s urge to ferret out the truth, come hell or high water. In Amnesia, by Peter Carey, the protagonist is a disgraced, disreputable journalist hoping to regain his reputation for investigative journalism. In the aptly named The Truth, by Michael Palin, a writer who has fallen into the pit of writing corporate spin for a living, goes on the trail of a renegade environmentalist in the hopes of discovering “the story behind the story”. In The Quarry, by Iain Banks, a gauche teenager searches for the truth about a missing video tape made by his father and six friends – or “frenemies” – when they were young and disreputable.

If there is a common conclusion we can come to in these three novels, it is that the truth is a strange and many-faceted thing, and that you should be careful what you wish for, if you wish to find it. The same goes for the truth about these novels. They are not what they seem at first glance. They have similar plots. But look a little deeper and other themes and conclusions emerge.

Setting and characters

The Quarry was Iain Banks’ last novel before he died of cancer in June 2013. Iain Banks has always been an author I greatly admire, and whose novels – both literary and sci-fi – and non-fiction (Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram) I practically lapped up in my enthusiasm for the peculiar worlds and characters he so deftly created. When picking up a Banks novel, I prepared myself for a mental marathon, since they were usually long and complex, and took a while to get into. I was expecting this when I picked up The Quarry. The narrator, “Kit”, is not yet of age, and is:

“…very clever, if challenged in other ways…I am weird, strange, odd, socially disabled, forever looking at things from an unusual angle”.

His father, “Guy”, is in the last throes of dying of cancer. He is difficult, angry, depressed, vicious, sad – all of the not-so-pleasant things people become when they are about to drop dead and are just running on meds and the urge to tie up unfinished business. Unusually, the novel contains shockingly direct descriptions of illness and pain from the point of view of a cancer sufferer, like Banks. It would’ve taken courage and the face-on confrontation of reality to describe those icky bodily things, the scourging mental turmoil, the desperate clinging to independence, meaning and the former self.

Plot and theme of letting go

In a shambolic house on the edge of a quarry due for redevelopment live Kit, Guy, and a friend and minder, “Hol (Holly”). Then some former friends of Guy’s pitch up for a very long weekend. Which brings up the matter of a missing video-tape that may or may not be a sex-tape. Everyone tries to make a deal with Kit about what he should do with it, if he should find it. It’s all very uncomfortable, everyone lies, no-one’s very nice, like a sort of menacing Fawlty Towers. Kit finds the tape eventually, in a hole in the quarry cliff-face (eh?) –and what’s on it? Well, read the book and you’ll find out.

As far as I was concerned, the tape, the screwed-up relations, the complicated politics of their youth, and Kit’s weirdness, were all incidental to the actual theme of the story – that of letting go, saying goodbye, shrugging off the past – and the relief that comes with doing so. Towards the end of the story, Kit looks at a bonfire of all his father’s old papers:

“I know that part of the reason I’m finding it so affecting standing here looking at the fire – especially with these people, especially with my dad at my side, leaning on his stick, his skeletal fingers clutched like talons round the knurled top – is because this is like looking at an image of our own lives, our own abandoned histories, our own past, baggage and legacies; all that hoarded meaning going up in smoke and flame, reduced to no more than bulk fuel for a mindless chemical reaction.” (p. 281)

This message makes the novel an engaging read and a beautiful goodbye to his readers, from a well-loved and immortal writer.

Postscript: Posthumous poetry collection by Banks due in Feb. 2015

“I think my poetry’s great but then I would, wouldn’t I?" … Iain Banks in May 2013. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
“I think my poetry’s great but then I would, wouldn’t I?” … Iain Banks in May 2013. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod. (Looking at this photo, I can hardly believe this is the red-haired, twinkle-eyed man I met at a book-signing in Johannesburg so many years ago. Those last few months must’ve been very hard.)

The final work by Iain Banks – a collection of poetry by the late author, just called Poems – will be released 16 February 2015, which would have been his 60th birthday, and his publisher Little, Brown said the collection would be by Banks and fellow science fiction author Ken MacLeod, who will edit it.

Banks revealed that the novel A Song of Stone was originally written as a poem, and pointed to the “bits here and there” he had already written. “Poems top and tail the story in Use of Weapons for example, he said. (And of course in his sci-fi novels, the space-ships all have the most poetic names

The poems are a part of the desperate urge to get things that were supposed to be long-term projects out the way. I’m going to see if I can get a book of poetry published before I kick the bucket. I’ve got about 50 I’m proud of.” 

Ken MacLeod said of the plan: “I’m delighted that Little, Brown is going to publish Iain’s poems, which he wrote over many years. They show a wise and witty mind at work, rational and humane and in love with the world.”  

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