Monday, 29 September 2014

Goodbye, My Friend: The Quarry - Iain Banks

Some books are beyond review.  Their iconic status means they become elevated from the normal rules of criticism.  Forever, "The Quarry" by Iain Banks will be remembered.  Not because of its writing style, plot or characterisation but because it was his final work before he died far far too early of cancer.  In fact it came out two weeks after his death.

This status is enhanced by the coincidence (apparently) that one of the main characters (the generically named Guy) of the work is himself dying of cancer.  The book focuses on one of the last weekends of his life where his pals from University gather together for a reunion.  A painful problem for the work is that as the ex-film students watch their friend's death unfolding so do Iain Banks readers.  A poignancy enhanced by the close relationship many of Banks' readers (and I would include myself in this) have with his work.  As a result of this I think many Banks devotees will genuinely struggle with it particularly towards the end.   

So now to attempt the impossible: how is it?  The truth is that I think the work is fairly slight.  That it was written and completed at all I guess is the wonder of it.  An immediate and constant problem for me is the authorial voice.  It takes the original (and structurally difficult) approach of having a first person narrator throughout - Kit: the 18 year old son of Guy - an autistic young man.   Using someone with a different way of looking at the world is not original - Faulkner's  "The Sound and Fury" and more recently the The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night - Time - (specifically an Autistic child).  This unreliable/reliable narrator has some advantages - it works well for humour as the deadpan approach of someone on the spectrum undercuts some of the more over the top statements of the other characters.

The problem is that the constant prose style has a clipped sparse tone - exactly like a teenage autistic would have.   In some ways (and interestingly) it is a bit like Ernest Hemingway who uses this style throughout all his fiction, I don't know what this says!  One tone throughout a novel is a difficulty though and means the work necessarily short as it runs out of places to go.   I also wonder given his illness whether it was easier for Banks to write like this - there is no need for extensive description or developed language.  When suffering from a particularly nasty painful disease  I can see the advantage of this.

The gathering takes place over a weekend in Guy and Kit's rundown Victorian pile overlooking the titular Quarry - the ambiguity of the word is used throughout and perhaps obviously as Moz put it "You are The Quarry".   The owners of the quarry want to buy the house to enlarge their working space - this is quite a powerful aspect of the book the relentless encroachment of the millennia old rocks like the coming of death to us all.  There is a prolonged scenes in the bowels of the quarry

I saw a Will Self talk at the book festival of the literary theories that there are only several ur-texts  from which all novels are derived.  One of these is the Fisher King - the quest saga: searching for the Holy Grail.   Quarry is focused on a search the Uni friends (all holding very 2010s jobs - meaningless management consultant roles, film critic, career and machine politician) want to use their time together to find a film they made together at uni which they want destroyed. It is/was  (as everyone and even Kit suspects) their attempt at porn.  Tied with this quest is  Kit's search for his mother who Guy has never revealed and could be one of the three female friends - including the one to which Kit is closest and also attracted to Hol (the critic).  

There are two pieces in the work that Banks can only get away with I think because of the nature of the  narrator - a scene where there is a literal list of films that Hol has recommended - very male.  There is also an unwise and overlong description of a role playing video game (is that what they still call them) that Kit is a recognised world expert at.  Again very stilted and reflective of Banks' own obsessions.  

The list of movies underlined to me the similarities of certain films to this work - the Oxbridge Fry/Laurie/Thompson (and Branagh directed) early 90s "Peter's Friends" and the 80s US "The Big Chill".  Like these works there are unresolved tensions, sexual, jealousy that all bubble up to a big confrontation on the last night together.  Some things are resolved and revealed, some aren't and Guy dies eventually.  

The relationship between the group is one of the strengths of the work - particularly viewed by Kit the outsider.  However although the characters do stand up on their own right Banks does fall prey to something he has done throughout his work - not really disguising his own voice through rants - Guy on "fighting" cancer (an excellent monologue in terms of content) and Hol provides the outlet against the current political system.

It is testimony to Banks' first rate skills as a writer that he pulled all this together and made it readable and fun in places.  For all its flaws it slips down as easily as one of the Islay malts that Iain Banks adored.  But on reflection I don't think it will stand as one of his strongest works - although I think it is as representative of our coalition austerity time of 2014 as any other fiction I have read. So it may have historical significance even beyond Banks.  His last Science Fiction work - also a wistful study of mortality has more to recommend it.

But as I said none of that really matters.  This is the last book Iain Banks will ever write.  And I will miss him.  That is the real legacy of this book.

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