An unconventional family. A wide array of witty and sarcastic friends. Sexual perversity and casual drug use. Technological and/or entertainment obsessions. Deep-seated psychological trauma coming out as bitterness and cleverly-expressed resentment. Above all: dark secrets, hidden too long and now, at last, coming to light.
Sound like an Iain Banks novel yet?
The Quarry is Banks’ final novel. It is, of course, an immense tragedy that there will be no more books by him coming in the future. Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks if it’s a sci-fi novel) was a terrific Scottish novelist, shifting from genre to genre and style to style with charm and ease. He put out something like thirty novels, and the huge majority of them are really quite excellent, and a good handful of them flat out masterpieces. He passed away not so long ago. I held off on reading this one for a while, not wanting to let go of one of my favorite writers. Eventually, however, I was no longer able to resist.
So, what do we have here? Well, like I said, it’s pretty standard Banks in a lot of ways, drawing on several tropes and ideas which he’s explored before. Is it a worthy capstone to his sadly truncated career, or is it a weightless trifle, overly-familiar and rote? Could it be somewhere between the two?
Read on, and find out WHAT I THINK!
The Quarry is the story of a young man named Kit. Kit’s father, Guy, is dying. Guy has cancer in a rather bad sort of way, and he’s not got long left. He invites a whole pile of his old school chums to his near-ruin of a house (which sits picturesquely if rather precariously upon the edge of the eponymous quarry). Everybody gets together and has a laugh. They also bicker and snipe and shout. Eventually, old secrets start to come out.
Alright, I’ll get this out of the way right at the start here. If you’ve never read any of Banks’ previous novels, I might not recommend starting with this one. The Quarry is a fine piece of work, and wouldn’t be a disaster as a first Banks novel (See: Canal Dreams, Song of Stone…) but I don’t think it will end up in my top five either (See: The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass, The Crow Road, The Bridge, Whit)
So, what’s good about The Quarry? Start with the positives. Banks’ character work and textural writing is in absolute top form here. They might be familiar types and familiar situations, but they are rendered with his trademark deftness. When I say that this is the sort of novel which he could have written in his sleep, I mean it more as a compliment to his effortless style than a knock on any sort of laziness. At least mostly.
And I must make special note of how much I enjoyed Kit as the protagonist. All the supporting characters may have been familiar types, but our main character was of a wholly other sort. It’s never explicitly stated, but it seems fairly obvious that he has Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism, for those not in the know, which leaves him rather uncomprehending of basic social cues and emotional expressions). Now, I’m sure there have been all sorts of books written from the prospective of people with any number of mental conditions, autism certainly among them. What’s lovely about this character, however, is the sheer matter-of-factness of him. It’s not a show the author is putting on to drum up cheap sympathy, and it’s not a treacly PSA about how they are just like us. It’s simple, it’s human: he is who he is, and that’s that. He has his issues, he has his strengths. Heroic moments, quirks, desires, passions, etc. All the normal stuff that you’d expect from a normal human being. Imagine that!
One other thing which I rather liked (and this is a bit of a spoiler, though I’ll do my best to keep it vague. Skip this paragraph if you want to preserve the mystery) was the way Banks handled the deep dark secret. He’s got a bit of a reputation, I think, for the big shocking reveal. A reputation predicated, not unfairly, upon his first novel and breakout success The Wasp Factory, which ends on a hell of a shocker. We’re talking a Sixth Sense level twist here. In The Quarry, however, Banks subverts that particular trope. We spend the whole story building up to this grand reveal. The mystery! The Secret! And when we get there… it all just sort of fizzles out. But in a good way! The dying father kind of puts it all in perspective. Like, hey! I’m dying here! My life is ending. Forever. Gone. Oblivion. It kinda makes all the secrets and games feel… empty in the end. This whole thing is handled quite expertly. If nothing else, Banks can always be counted on for his masterful storytelling, that much must be said. Not a lot of writers could manage to dump out a big build-up like that at the last minute and still leave the reader satisfied, leave them more satisfied than if he’d carried out the standard reveal as expected. This sort of thing is a big part of why I’m going to miss his novels so very much.
Alright then. So that’s the good stuff. What doesn’t work? What’s bad here?
Honestly… not very much. It’s a nice tight story, with a few novel twists and turns and interesting characters. It meanders a bit, kind of a soggy middle section, but he’s such a lively and witty writer that I doubt you’d ever notice it. And the book does lean a little heavily on some standard Banks tropes, but just ’cause he’s done it before doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. At least it can be said that it’s utterly his. I mean, it would have been interesting to see him go out with a bit more of a bang. Something splashy and shocking like Wasp Factory or brilliant and experimental like The Bridge. But maybe it’s best this way. A quiet little novel, reflective and small. A little slice of a thing, a meditation on a life, the successes and the regrets, the secrets and the lies… the sadness of a thing ending.
All in all, not a bad sort of eulogy for one of the finest novelists of our time. I’d recommend it. If you’re familiar with his work, pick it up. You’ll be delighted to have an old friend back, and to see that he had a few new tricks up his sleeve right up to the end. If you’re not so familiar with his stuff… I’d still pick it up. Maybe not as a first choice, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you do. Anyway, I’m jealous if this is your first. You’ve got a hell of a lot of great books ahead of you.
Farewell, Iain. You will be missed.