336 pages, Little Brown
Review by Pat Black
How to review this one without mentioning the obvious? Waste of time trying.
The Quarry is Iain Banks’ last novel. It concerns a man in the final stages of cancer, gathering his friends around at his house for one last get-together before he pops his clogs. Banks was apparently nine-tenths of the way through this book when, out of the blue, he was given his own extremely terminal cancer diagnosis after having gone to the doctor’s to have a bad back examined.
The book is narrated by Kit, the autistic son of Guy, the cancer patient. They live in a run-down house bordering a massive quarry in what that pillock in the House of Lords the other week would term the “desolate” North East of England. The house is due to get knocked down, or face being pulled into the quarry as the ground beneath their feet naturally disintegrates. Everything feels very final.
Guy isn’t a ray of sunshine. A spitting, snarling misanthrope, he’s not going gently into that good night. He isn’t springing forth with a jaunty spring in his step, either. He seems to be imploding, accepting of his fate but contemptuous of the world at having the gall to carry on without him. His unkindness extends to eighteen-year-old Kit, even as the boy wipes his backside for him and holds his penis while he urinates, or carries out any other number of unpleasant duties which simply have to be done when a loved one is slipping away.
Kit tells us up-front he’s autistic. He seems to be high-functioning, having earned a few quid on an online multi-player fantasy game called HeroSpace, where he is a world-renowned player and guru. Kit doesn’t know who his mother is, and Guy isn’t telling; but he suspects that the lucky lady may be one of Guy’s old university friends, coming to stay that weekend.
There are five characters who pop over to see Guy – Hol, Haze, Pris, Paul and Ali. Paul the lawyer and wannabe politician and the film critic Holly, who is very close to Kit, are the standout characters. The others aren’t so memorable until the end, and I couldn’t help but think that the whole scenario might have been better suited to a TV play or a movie where faces make better markers than names.
Altruism isn’t the chief motivator for many of these people. Having been film, TV and media students with Guy (who is slightly older than the others) two decades before, it turns out that the group made a few amateur films together. One production in particular is of real concern to all, though they won’t say what’s on it. Paul the politician and Ali the dot.com businesswoman, having the most to lose, are hell bent on finding this tape and destroying it. Kit suspects that sex might be involved.
On top of that, there’s regret to be negotiated. Guy has seen himself go from a handsome, thick-haired seraph able to bed women by merely clicking his fingers, to a stick-thin, cancer-addled recluse stuck in his miserable home. He bitterly regrets the very fact of his son, telling him: “I wasted the best years of my life on you”. All of the characters lament the fact that nothing turned out for them the way they wanted it to – no-one really fulfilled their early promise. Drink and drugs are taken as the weekend goes on, and secrets begin to emerge.
This had a nice synchronicity with Banks’ previous novels. I saw a lot of Frank, the narrator of The Wasp Factory, in Kit. There are other parallels in the remote, dysfunctional home life the boy shares with his father. Kit’s fascination with video games (and another dark adumbration of cancer) links back to doomed Cameron Colley in Complicity. In the quest for the missing videotape, there are shades of Prentice McHoan’s attempts to decipher the contents of his uncle Rory’s archaic computer disks in The Crow Road.
But this is neither as uplifting and magical as The Crow Road, as gleefully sadistic as Complicity nor as downright deviant as The Wasp Factory. It’s only memorable in Banks’ body of work for being one thing: the full stop. The brightest part is a fulminating rant from Guy about how glad he will be to be quit of life, and “the persistent feeling that I am being surrounded by f*cking idiots”. Apparently, Iain Banks got his laptop out in the hospital and wrote this speech in the immediate aftermath of being told that he should be looking to cancel any pressing engagements he might have in the next couple of months.
It’s a melancholic piece of work. The shocking part for me was when I realised that Hol, Pris, Paul, Haze and Ali are all about the same age as I am, maybe a couple of years older. The stuff they talk about being into when they were younger, the bands they listened to, the movies they watched, are the same stuff that my generation enjoyed, toyed with and deconstructed when we were in our late teens and early twenties. And it hit me that this was a fair amount of time ago; a significant wedge has been sliced out of my lifetime since then. To today’s teenagers and early twentysomethings, grunge, Britpop and Tarantino are about as distant and alien as Slade, The Sweet and T-Rex seemed to me.
Reading The Quarry got me brooding on things. One day, things are going to move on without you. Your old house will have to make way for a big f*cking hole in the ground. And saying goodbye to you may be less important to the people you used to call your friends than finding a blue film.
It’s not Banks’ best book, but I can hardly blame the poor bugger for that. It’s an apt conclusion, though. There’s a definite chill to it, an air of desolation. I am glad I didn’t read it in winter. Selfishly, I wish Banks had been diagnosed sooner, that maybe he’d had another year or eighteen months on the clock, for him to bring the Culture arc to a grand finale. Imagine the Culture meeting god. Or becoming god. Or destroying god.
Of course, I wish he hadn’t gone at all. You never know the day, as my elders used to tell me.