His masterstroke is the creation of the monstrously selfish Guy, who tells his son he regrets the time he wasted bringing him up
As a youth Iain Banks spent most of his spare time fashioning bombs out of household products. He used to claim the only word he wrote on the “interests” section of his university application form was “explosives”.
There could hardly be a more perfectly Banksian setting for a book, then, than the quarry in the title of his 27th and final novel. Just as the young Banks used to watch in fascination from his bedroom window as engineers would blast hills to make way for a bridge, so Kit, the teenage narrator of The Quarry, relishes the nearby explosions that rattle his house.
Appropriately for a swansong, The Quarry echoes its author’s first novel, in that its narrator is a teenage boy. But in most other respects it could hardly be more different from the pathological study that was The Wasp Factory: there is little here that critics would have objected to, even in 1984. Like most of Banks’s recent novels, it is a story about ordinary people the reader will know or possibly be, powered by a solid but not essential plot.
The novel has two MacGuffins. The first is the identity of Kit’s mother, a secret kept from him by his cantankerous father, Guy, with whom he lives in a decrepit house on the edge of the quarry. Kit’s efforts to winkle out her name are urgent because Guy is dying of cancer.
The second is the problem of the whereabouts of a compromising video, made by Guy and fellow students 20 years previously that has the potential to knock careers off course. So a deputation arrives at Willoughtree House, where they all stayed for a period while studying at the nearby university, determined to find and destroy the tape.
But it is the central characterisations that give the novel its power. Kit is a pedantically reliable narrator, being afflicted (or, the novel implies, blessed) with an Asperger’s-like condition that makes it hard for him to understand the concept of lying.
Telling a story from this defamiliarising perspective – the teen who describes everything without necessarily understanding it – is not in itself original, but Banks handles the challenge brilliantly. Kit’s ingenuous commentary gives the story a layer of irony, but it is also touching as Kit comes to terms with the fact that dissembling is something he has to master if he wants an ordinary life.
But Banks’s masterstroke is the creation of the monstrously selfish Guy, who, enfeebled by cancer, tells his son he regrets the time he wasted bringing him up. There are many passages in which Banks gives expression, with rare eloquence, to the hatred so many feel towards cancer: “That’s the thing about cancer; it’s all yours – it’s entirely, perfectly personalised. The cause might have come from outside – carcinogens in tobacco smoke or whatever – but that just triggered the runaway reaction in your own cells, and in that sense a fatal cancer is a kind of unwilled suicide, where, initially at least, one small part of the body has taken a decision that will lead to the death of the rest. Cancer feels like betrayal.”
But cancer is never presented as an excuse for Guy’s behaviour. The more we learn about Guy, the clearer it is that his illness has exacerbated a lifelong tendency towards gittishness.
Despite his cruelty, most readers will adore Guy.
Banks has made it his business to inspire sympathy for monsters. He wants us to view characters that might be described as human blots on the landscape in the same way he wants us to look at quarries: to consider they are worth thinking about and might even contain something beautiful.
It may be this element of compassion that accounts for why so many readers are grieving the loss of a writer who has the rare gift of being infallibly entertaining. – ©The Daily Telegraph
- The Quarry by Iain Banks
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