When Iain Banks announced in April that he was dying of gall bladder cancer, he said that his forthcoming novel The Quarry would be his last. I've just read it, and though I came to it with high expectations, I find that I was still surprised by just how good this novel is, and how it revisits so many of the motifs from Banks's earlier novels, and what a spectacular blend of emotions it carries.
The Quarry is the story of Kit, an 18-year-old boy on the autistic spectrum who lives in a tumbledown house with his father, Guy, who is dying of cancer. Guy was once a legendary bohemian and nonconformist, the lynchpin of a tight-knit group of friends who all attended film-school with him. Kit has spent his 18 years living with Guy and their housekeeper, in Guy's family house, which is slowly coming down around their ears, literally shaken to pieces by the regular blasting at the nearby quarry. Soon, Guy will die and Kit will be forced out of the house by the quarry's expansion.
There's time for one more reunion, though. One weekend, all of Guy's old university friends descend upon the house for a final hurrah -- a last chance to say goodbye, a kind of Gen-X Big Chill with the corpse present and alive for the wake. They're there to settle old scores, to say goodbye, and to locate a mysterious and all-consuming video-tape with the only known copy of a student film they made and that must never get out, lest its mysterious contents destroy all their lives.
The scenario plays out with nods to so much of Banks's best work. Kit is a kind of saner avatar of Frank Cauldhame, the reclusive narrator of Banks's 1984 debut The Wasp Factory, and like Frank, the circumstances of his parentage and childhood are shrouded in mystery. The country house setting took me back to 1996's Whit. Kit is an avid -- and semi-professional -- gamer, a central premise of Complicity, whose cancer subplot was so strong that it took me within inches of quitting smoking in 1993 (I ended up quitting seven years later). There's even some stage business with mobile phones that took me back to 2002's Dead Air, the first thriller that made peace with cellular telephony and figured out how to integrate it into suspense plots.
Guy himself is an acerbic, dying mouthpiece for the author, a tragic figure whose unbearable pain and horrible behavior are a sad reminder of Banks's own final time. He won't suffer fools, but neither will he turn away from his oldest friends, and there is, shot through all of his acid speeches and disoriented protests, a sense of deep love for the people who he brought to his side in his last days. Banks's final book isn't just 325 pages of FUCK CANCER; it's also a sorrowing and sweet love note to the world and all us poor bastards left in it.
I have loved Banks's writing since I was 13 years old. He was one of my literary heroes. His death was heartbreaking. I would rather he had lived 40 more years and written 20 inferior novels than have had him go at the age of 59 with a brilliant book like The Quarry. But if he had to write a final book, this is the final book I'd have had him write -- a goodbye letter to the world and all of its wonder and terror.