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The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry by Iain BanksReview: The Quarry by Iain Banks (Little, Brown, 2013)

It’s always the good ones. For those unaware of recent events, Scottish author Iain Banks recently died of cancer. Surely one of the most popular authors of recent times, he penned such wonderful fiction as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and The Bridge, not to mention his groundbreaking science fiction output as Iain M. Banks. Thankfully for us he was able to leave one parting gift. The Quarry is Banks’s swan song, a final goodbye to a world about which he had mixed emotions to say the least.

The Quarry is told through the eyes of Kit, an eighteen-year old boy living with his father in their remote cottage. Their home teeters on the edge of an ever-expanding quarry, one which has now acquired their property and will soon swallow it whole. Kit is not what is politely termed these days as ‘neuro-typical’. Floating somewhere on the autistic spectrum he is blunt and awkward, yet in many ways focused to a remarkable degree. Kit’s days consist of playing an online game known as Herospace, where he accumulates some real-world pocket money, and taking care of his father, Guy. Guy is slowly wasting away, being consumed by the late stages of cancer.

The short time-span of the novel revolves around a group visit to Guy, old college friends coming for one last hurrah before the inevitable. What little plot there is takes the form of a quest, the hunt for an elusive videotape which contains material embarrassing to all present – the rebellious Marxist film critic, the obnoxious right-wing politician, the neurotic …, the hipster corporate ladder-climbers. As the story unwinds the nature of the offending media and its implications for the guests becomes clear, but this is all so much smoke an mirrors.

For all its window-dressing as an ensemble drama, The Quarry is a final monologue delivered by a dying man. It’s Banks’s farewell to the world wherein he’s finally given utterly free rein to vent his feelings about the world which he spent a glorious career attempting to understand. There is a great deal of warmth and affection in his writing, a real sense that he was going to miss this place once he departed, but I’ll be honest – it’s the vitriol that grabs me. There are few targets which escape his ire and he is magnificently unrestrained at times. To wit:

“Fuck that. That’s just evangelism in disguise.” – On the demands of Alcoholics Anonymous that one surrender to a higher power.

“When you stare into the void it, like, stares back at you”
“Does it fuck.”” – On endlessly repeated philosophical deepities.

“Pre-identing up-torrent crisis nodes and realitising positive issue-relevant impending-threat-modulated countermeasure envision-sets within the applicable statutory and regulatory challenge/riposte-space.” – On ubiquitous corporate and managerial garbage-speak.

This is merely the tip of a grand iceberg smashing its way through the modern world. While the majority of the invective comes, unsurprisingly, from the imminently life-bereft Guy, all of the cast members get their chance to take stabs at anything in their way. Left-wing Holly and Tory Paul are obviously set up as foils for each other but through the course of the novel everyone finds they have an axe to grind.

Another surprise was just how well I identified with the two main characters. Okay, I’m sure that my affinity for cantankerous Guy and his lack of patience with an imperfect world is little surprise. I actually look forward to old age so I can deliver my rants and air my grievances with greater authenticity. However, it was Kit’s isolated worldview which struck the greater chord. Thrust into the world without the social machinery which others take for granted, Kit is left baffled by basic human interaction (who the hell invented small-talk, white lies and pleasantries?), threatened by gatherings of more than a couple of people and utterly clueless about affairs of the heart. Indeed one of his simplest lines could sum up much of The Quarry and my own opinion about existence: “I’m never going to understand people”.

It’s a great shame that Banks has left us but he did so with great style, delivering one of his funniest and most personal works yet. If you’ve never read him before then I urge you to start immediately. For those already familiar, pick up The Quarry for one last fling, then start working your way back through your old favourites.

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