The Quarry by Iain Banks
Previously published in the Herald magazine.
The Quarry begins with this dark premise: Guy is dying. His best friends collect in his house for what is probably their last time spent together. Guy’s son and primary caregiver, Kit narrates the events of the long weekend as he sees it, as the guests arrive at Willoughtree House - the shambling old antique in they once all lived that lies besides a quarry, and will probably be razed over as the quarry expands. Though not yet forty, Guy is in the final stages of terminal lung cancer. He intends on trying to keep up with his friends during a weekend of drink and drugs and a forced joviality to relive their youthful escapes - in shared stories, if nothing else. Two things colour the entire weekend: Guy and his friends were once all film students at a nearby university, and they used to make ‘ embarrassing shit little mini-movies’, one of which has vanished, and Kit is hoping to find out who his mother is.
Kit is not an unfamiliar narrator to contemporary readers. He’s a high functioning autistic probably at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum - is incredibly intelligent in certain ways and socially mostly inept. His is the voice through which this story is told. The idea of objectivity when using a first person narrative is easiest handled with a narrator like Kit - someone whose social cues are so weak that it is all he can do to report exactly what he sees. Of course, even then we see everything unfold from a single perspective, but it is the perspective of someone incapable of guile. He is honest about everything - even his father’s imminent death. ‘He’s still dying’, Kit says, with no grief or sarcasm.
Holly, the film critic, Paul the media lawyer, Pris the social worker, Haze the stoner, Rob and Ali the corporate couple all share a great deal with Guy, obviously, but it is soon clear that they don’t have a lot in common anymore. Th Quarry is full of disagreements and conversations between the group. Rants against the government, sarcasm for the employers of each person, arguments between the lot about how they have chosen to live their lives occur constantly during this weekend, and while Banks has always been able to write dialogue very well, many of the conversations in The Quarry drag on a bit. But what rings entire true is Guy’s increasing frustration with his cancer-ridden body and his impending death. ‘Being positive about having terminal cancer,’ says Guy, ‘is akin to ‘you might as well walk into a burning building and try to put out the fire through the medium of modern dance.’ ‘
It’s heartbreaking really. Iain Banks was diagnosed with very late stage gallbladder cancer and given less than a year to live when he had written most of The Quarry. He had no idea there was anything serious wrong until he was diagnosed, yet was writing a book about a man facing inevitable death. It’s frightening to think of the strange, strange coincidence this book is. It’s inevitable that while reading The Quarry fans will wonder if and what changes Banks made to the manuscript after his diagnosis. Is it Banks’ opinion Guy speaks, when he says ‘I hate the thought of the world and all the people in it just going merrily on without me after I’m gone. How f*****g dare they?’ Even if these words were written before Banks’ knew about his own illness, they are still overwhelming to read just a few weeks after his death.
Is it possible to judge The Quarry independent of what is known about Iain Banks’ illness and recent death? It isn’t. Not for anyone who has read and loved his work before. As one of Granta’s current Best of British writers Jenni Fagan suggests to me via Twitter, perhaps the only way with this book by Banks (his final, his last) is ‘truly from the heart’.
Iain Banks was an incredibly prolific writer. His first novel, The Wasp Factory was published in 1984 and since then he published a novel almost every year. Banks wrote ‘literary’ fiction alongside hard science fiction as Iain M Banks, and was critically acclaimed by both mainstream readers and genre fans alike, winning multiple awards and accolades. Named one of Granta’s Best of British Writers in 1993, Banks has left behind a huge trove of literature, with books like The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road still causing as much shock and awe today as they did when first published. The Quarry may never rank amongst Iain Banks’ best work, but it will always be the one that cuts closest to the bone.