It’s said you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and this admonition is most stringently enforced when it comes to the recently deceased as can be seen by the early reviews in the dailies of The Quarry, the late Iain Banks’s latest and last novel:
[A]n urgent novel and an important one – The Observer
This is vintage Banks, full of heart, black comedy and vitriol, and is sure to delight his fans – Sunday Mirror
The Quarry is very, very good – The Independent
When it comes to the dying, however, the dying can (and often do) speak ill—or at least their mind—of anyone they damn well please. In most cases those at the receiving end of such diatribes are close family members and medical staff. When you’re a famous novelist and you learn that the book you’re in the process of writing—have in fact almost finished writing—is going to be your last and unless your publisher gets their finger out is not one you’re likely to hold in your hand, you might have a few things to get off your chest. And Banks does. Not in the genial, gentlemanly tones we normally associate with Iain Banks when faced with an audience or a television camera but in the vociferous, foul-mouthed raging against the dying of the light of his last great creation: Guy Hyndersley.
Guy is not the book’s narrator, though; his son, Kit (short for Kitchener—seriously) is. He rarely swears. In fact if a DNA test hadn’t been carried out to confirm that Kit was his offspring you would be hard pressed to find any similarity between the two. The reason for the test?
[Guy] tells people he came back drunk from the pub that night and assumed the warm bundle inside the front porch was a takeaway meal delivery he’d forgotten ordering. He claims to have been quite peeved when he discovered it was actually a newborn baby.
Also there is some question regarding the identity of Kit’s mother:
Not knowing who your father is is not so unusual; not knowing who your mother is is just plain weird. Guy … has variously claimed that my mother is an emigrated-to-Australia ex-barmaid from a long-closed pub in Bewford; a married, middle-aged member of the aristocracy somewhere between one-hundred-and-fiftieth and two-hundredth in line to the throne; a disgraced Traveller girl now settled quietly in County Carlow (which is in Ireland); an American exchange student from the Midwest with hyper-strict parents, belonging to some bizarre religious cult; or possibly just some random girl/conquest he promptly forgot about even at the time, who literally abandoned me on his doorstep one evening.
Or it might be Hol, Pris or Ali. Along with Guy, Paul, Haze and Rob, the three girls formed the core of “Bewford Uni Film and Media Studies Faculty Ninety-Two Intake”, all of whom once lived together at Willoughtree House and have somehow remained friends ever since. Pris and Haze used to be a couple; Rob and Ali are currently a couple but it looks like Guy at least has known all three women, although he only had what might be called loosely ‘a relationship’ with Hol. Kit is probably closest to Hol. Whether any of them is a blood relation is neither here nor there: this is his family and like all the best literary families it’s as dysfunctional as hell but in a good way.
The events described in the book take place over a long weekend, what everyone expects will be the last weekend the group will spend together before Guy dies. So if anything was going to happen, if things that needed to be said were ever going to get said, this was when it has to happen. Maybe this is when Kit will finally learn the truth about his mother. Unlikely. The main thing that seems to be on the group’s collective mind is a certain video tape which everyone agrees were it to find its way into the public domain would be … “embarrassing” is their understated adjective of choice. Kit expects that it’s a sex tape but no one seems to want to confirm or deny that.
‘What is this tape you’re looking for?’ I ask her. ‘I might be able to help. I know the house better than Guy does now. I know where most stuff is stored.’
Holly stares at the suds in the sink, then lifts out one yellow-gloved hand and takes up her wineglass, drinking. ‘Just an old videotape,’ she tells me. Her voice sounds sleepy, the words slightly slurred. ‘Something kind of embarrassing on it.’ She shrugs. ‘If it’s even still around.’ She looks at me. ‘An S-VHS-C; old format. Thick as a VHS cassette but about, I don’t know, a quarter of the size. Small enough to fit into a hand-held camera of the day but you could play it … Well, you could play them straight from the camera, but if you’ve got this’ – Holly is waving one gloved hand around, distributing foam – ‘mechanical sort of gizmo the size and shape of a VHS tape, then … you inserted it into that and then put the whole shebang into your standard VHS video player under your telly and played it from that.’
At first everyone just shrugs off the tape—if we find it we find it, if we don’t we don’t—but as the days wear on Kit starts to add two and two together, especially when more (albeit gentle) pressure is placed on him to locate the thing. Eventually all pretence at indifference vanishes, the house is divvied up and everyone sets out to try to locate said tape which does turn up, you’ll be pleased to hear, but when they do find it what’s on it is not what any of them anticipated and is probably even more … let’s just go with ‘damning’ … than what they expected to find.
The tape is, of course, a MacGuffin:
In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "the audience don't care". [George] Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen". – Wikipedia
I’d have to go with Lucas here. The tape is not unimportant but it’s not what the book’s about. Remember the novel’s called The Quarry but it’s not really about the quarry either. The tape’s the quarry. Holtarth Moor Quarry is there in the background, it gets talked about—Kit, since Guy won’t survive that long, will have to move out of his house as the quarry expands—but it’s really just a metaphor for that which devours us over time. For Guy that is obviously his cancer but life has nibbled away at everyone in this book and continues to do so and it looks as if this weekend it’s preparing to take a big bite out of everyone. Inevitably Nietzsche gets referenced:
‘Yeah, but it’s true, isn’t it?’ Haze says, nodding slowly, eyes partially closed, staring into the middle distance, or at least whatever portion of it is available within the confines of the sitting room. ‘When you stare into the void, it, like, stares back at you.’
‘Does it, fuck,’ Guy snorts.
Haze looks at him, blinking rapidly.
‘Whoa, dude. I’m just saying what I felt,’ Haze says, through a small cloud of exhaled smoke. Ali, sitting nearby, waves it away with quick, sharp flaps of her hand.
‘No you’re fucking not,’ Guy tells him. ‘You’re just repeating a load of ego … drenched, self-regard-saturated, pseudo-mystical bollocks.’
Hol mutters something about ‘calling my homie Freddy N on one of his greater insights’, though she says it so quietly I think maybe only I hear it as Rob sighs and says,
‘Just give up now, Haze.’
‘Is that from Touching the Void, that climbing—’ Ali says, as Guy jabs one bony finger at Haze.
‘How does the fucking void stare back at you?’
‘I was just saying, I was looking into the quarry this morning—’ Haze begins.
‘How the fuck does the fucking void stare back at you?’ Guy demands, louder. He’s already complained about having a headache this evening and he’s taken more painkillers than he really should. Sometimes when he’s in a lot of pain he gets more angry and combative and, well, vicious. ‘Where are its eyes, where is its fucking nervous system, where is the brain that is receiving the results of this so-fucking-directed staring? Staring implies looking, looking implies – requires, fucking demands – something to stare with, something to interpret and consider and fucking philosophise about the results of this “staring”. How does any fucking absence of rock or other material cobble together the intellectual wherewithal to do anything as organised as fucking stare?’
‘I think,’ Paul says, ‘it’s generally regarded as being just a metaphor for the connection you feel when you gaze upon something … profound.’
‘Really?’ Guy sneers. ‘I think it’s an excuse for the intellectually challenged and … pretentious to make themselves feel important. Wow, man,’ Guy says, suddenly switching to a deeper, stoned-sounding, slightly posher voice and slowing down a fraction, ‘like, I’m so fucking the centre of the world I can’t stare into this crack in the ground without it showing me the respect of, like, staring back at me, like, you know? Cos I’m, like, as vacuous as it is, yah?’ He shakes his head, switches back to his normal voice as he says, ‘Jesus,’ and drinks from his can of Newcastle Brown.
Banks learned about his own cancer—inoperable cancer of the gallbladder—in March 2013. In an interview with Stuart Kelly only days before his death in June he says what he did next:
"On the morning of 4th March"—after he had been sent for a CT scan—"I thought everything was hunky dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the 4th I'd been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I'd written 90% of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I'd done my words for the day, I'd taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy, and once I'd been given the prognosis, I wrote the bit where Guy says, 'I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind.' It was an exaggeration of what I was feeling, but it was me thinking: 'How can I use this to positive effect?' Because I was feeling a bit kicked in the guts at this point. So I thought, 'OK, I'll just give Guy a good old rant.' Like I say; that's reality for you, it can get away with anything."
The thing is most of the rants in this book aren’t actually about cancer unless cancer is also a metaphor. In this book we get to look back on that peculiarly amorphous of things: ‘a generation’. Never been quite sure what ‘a generation’ means. My brother’s three years younger than I am and I don’t feel a part of his generation. When I was sixteen and he was thirteen there was a gulf but now I’m fifty-four and he’s fifty-one are we a part of the same generation? If so, when did that happen? Suffice to say Kit is the outsider here, the voyeur, our proxy and since he has “a reputation for obsessive-compulsive behaviour, Asperger’s and/or” he comes across as a rather dispassionate narrator. His only real passion is for the online game HeroSpace, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game probably something along the lines of the board game Heroscape. And he does have a bit of a soft spot for Hol, although ‘soft’ is not really the right word if you catch my drift and that could be problematic. He describes himself as on "a spectrum that stretches from 'highly gifted' at one end to 'nutter' at the other, both of which I am comfortable with." So, a fairly typical Banksian teenager then.
Banks, via this miscellany of characters, gets to say a lot about the legacy his own generation has left the world with and he does not mince his words. Politics inevitably crop up and this quote is as good a one as any:
Paul spreads both arms, looks round at everybody else, as though appealing to them. He even looks at me. ‘Holly,’ he says, when his gaze returns to her, ‘I don’t know what to say to you when you’re in this sort of mood. I don’t know how to handle you. Politics is politics and there are some decent people on the other side just like there are some twats on our side, and until you accept that you’re always going to sound like some Spartist caricature. Get a fucking grip, why don’t you.’
‘Can we talk about something else?’ Alison asks.
‘I’m not arguing there are no decent people in the Tory Party,’ Hol says to Paul. I think she’s trying to keep calm now. ‘But they’re like bits of sweetcorn in a turd; technically they’ve kept their integrity, but they’re still embedded in shit.’
‘There you go,’ Paul says, laughing lightly.
‘Yeah, come off the fence, Hol,’ Haze says. ‘Tell us what you really think!’
‘Things have changed, Hol,’ Rob tells her. ‘Phase-changed, even. We’re just not where we were.’
‘I’m being serious here,’ Alison says. ‘Can we talk about something else? I mean, does any of this really matter?’
‘Finally a note of realism,’ Paul says, shaking his head.
‘There’s always UKIP, Hol,’ Haze says.
Hol looks at Haze as though she’s about to say something, but then her face sort of screws up and she just makes a sound like ‘Tschah!’
For all that, this is an understated book. Seriously, not much happens apart from a lot of talking. A lot. Seriously. Lots. Pages and pages of conversations. The one-on-ones are okay, the rants are simply wonderful and must’ve been great fun to write, but once everyone’s in the one room drunk and/or high there’s no way you can keep track of who’s talking and Banks wisely—although I’m sure some creative writing teachers will frown at this—simply gives up on speech tags; it doesn’t matter who’s talking. Frankly most of the minor players are a bit two-dimensional anyway and deliberately so; none has maximised their full potential even the ones who’re more financially secure than others. Banks, himself, refers to the book as “a relatively minor piece,” and I’m not going to argue but a relatively minor piece by Banks will still wipe the floor with most other authors.
That said the book was rushed to print and would’ve benefitted from some tighter editing. In his review in The Independent Brian Morton notes:
Given the hasty completion of a book that Banks lived long enough to see in print, if not in public circulation, there are inevitable slips, or apparent slips. It was, for instance, Dennis Potter not Harold Pinter who dubbed his tumour “Rupert” (after the media proprietor), but then one wonders if this is a deliberate mistake and if Banks is steering us simultaneously to the realist/science-fiction split of Potter's own last works, and to the broken communications and stilled lives of Pinter's plays. It's a sign that we are dealing with a narrator who doesn't know everything after all and is most interesting when he doesn't.
The version I read, however, says quite clearly:
‘Come on,’ Hol tells him. ‘Come to the pub, if you’re up to it; won’t be the same without you.’
‘I’m up to it, Rupert isn’t,’ he says, though he is now pulling on his knitted hat, which might be a positive sign. Guy calls his cancer ‘Rupert’, an idea he says he got from the dead playwright Dennis Potter.
I could find no reference to any ‘Harold’ so maybe it was an ARC Morton got hold of. That said I did get more lost than I would’ve liked during some of the lengthier—not that there are many short—exchanges. Occasionally we change scene and there’s nothing, not even a space to let us know this is a new section; that was also a bit sloppy, although I’ve just read a Roth where he does exactly the same but I didn’t like it there either. Perhaps if they reprint it—can’t imagine them not reprinting it (not sure any of Banks’s books are out of print)—they could tweak it then.
If you’ve never read Banks before I’m not sure this would be the best place to start off. The tabloids may have been mostly forgiving but Joe Public hasn’t been as you’ll see from the one-star reviews on Amazon and some by long-time fans. He can, and has, done better. Mostly he’s done different. Different isn’t necessarily better. I was reminded of Ian McEwan when I read this. McEwan’s done a lot of growing up since his first two scandalous short story collections and Banks is also not the same man who wrote The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory. He’s matured. The Quarry is a grown-up novel. He might not have gone out on a bang but he certainly doesn’t go out on a whimper either. Just a damn shame he had to go at all.