The Quarry – Iain Banks

It’s impossible for me to be truly objective with this one.  The death of Iain Banks hit many of us hard, and this final novel touches on so many memories too.  I met and spent significant time with Iain on several occasions over the 26 years I knew him.  There is much in The Quarry to recognise from the man himself as well as earlier works. 
In that light then, it is difficult not to read falsely here, to interpret some kind of final summary statement that isn’t actually there.  The presence of a major character dying of cancer adds to that, of course, despite knowing that the book was almost completed when Iain was diagnosed. 
It is also a novel that circumstances have led to be previewed in a couple of high profile interviews this week.  Expectations inevitably arise from these that also colour judgement on the text as it is.
But enough caveat, The Quarry is, like most of Iain Banks’ novels, a variation on the family saga, a twist on the gothic castle.  Six university friends gather twenty years on at the home of one, Guy, who is dying of cancer.  Guy’s awkward, geekish, loner 18 year old son Kit is the narrator, one more variant on two of Banks’ most memorable protagonists, Frank Cauldhame and Prentice McHoan.  Kit is not the unreliable narrator that Frank is, but he shares with both Frank and Prentice a state of being wilfully misinformed that has a similar effect on the reader.  
Over the course of a long Pinteresque weekend the assembled cast search Guy’s home for a missing video that will, it seems, embarrass them all.  The home sits on the edge of an expanding rock quarry, but I am tempted to suggest here that the quarry of the title is in fact the hunted tape.  That would fit the game playing humour of this novel and Banks’ past work.
Right from the start Iain Banks writing has been full of little jokes, sharp jabbing rants, and indulgences that frequently look unnecessary yet accumulate as a part of character and mood.  The Quarry arguably takes this further and more bluntly than previously.  (At this point it does occur that, given time, some of these might have been edited out or revised.  Or would they?)  Early on Kit tells us how he has been taught to make small talk, discouraged from expressing his autism-like obsessiveness too deeply.  This becomes a refrain throughout and distinguishes Kit from the less self-aware guests as they rant, squabble and display petty jealousies.  Thus the selfish, arrogant, thoughtless conversations come over as broad satire of corporate speak, of the vapid opinions of the media classes.  It is hard not to read Banks own, publicly stated, politics in rants about a minor character’s change of newspaper, for example, or his mockery of jargon when a character states “I solutionise outcomes” without irony.  Through Guy, in particular, Banks rails at much of commercial, conservative society in the same way that his shock jock Ken Nott does in Dead Air. 
So The Quarry echoes scenes or aspects of Banks older work, from Kit’s obsession with measurement to his close bond with Holly, his dad’s former lover to his escape into an online game.  Guy’s cancer is less central than you might have been led to expect.  With a couple of exceptions it is mostly a device to allow Guy his raging and rants.  And the big secret?  Paul Kincaid observed many years ago that with Banks the bad guy, the cause of trouble, is always within the (pseudo-) family.  The Quarry plays on this again but its turnings are different. No spoilers.
Time will tell if we can consider The Quarry as good as Banks best novels The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, even Whit, but for now, it’s proved a passionate, enjoyable, and suitably cathartic (for his fans) read.  It feels and reads like a typical Iain Banks novel, in that clear voice that was all his own.

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About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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