Iain Banks's clear-eyed unsentimentality is the reason I feel duty-bound to say The Quarry is a stinker

The Quarry comes across as something of a "greatest hits" - I wanted, desperately, for the book to be a final majestic flourish - his rightly deserved swan song. But it isn't. It's a stinker.

The Quarry
Iain Banks
Little Brown, 336pp, £18.99

I come to bury Iain Banks, not to praise him. I wanted, desperately, to like The Quarry, hoped it would be a final majestic flourish to a career that encompassed both space operas and cosy domestic dramas – but it isn’t. Without his name on the cover, it would barely be read at all.

Banks was diagnosed in April with terminal cancer and he died on 9 June, days before The Quarry was released. It is his 29th book – he wrote 14 science-fiction volumes (as Iain M Banks) and 14 literary ones – and probably his worst, although I can muster little enthusiasm for 2002’s Dead Air or 2007’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale (I didn’t even attempt 2012’s Stonemouth). The cover blurb promises “a virtuoso performance whose soaring riffs on the inexhaustible marvel of human perception . . . will stand among Iain Banks’s greatest work”. The cover blurb is lying.

Most gallingly, there is probably a good book inside The Quarry trying to get out. The damp, bleak, setting and the motif of death in the family echoes The Crow Road, the best of Banks’s non-supernatural output, while the naive teenage protagonist, Kit, reminds one of The Wasp Factory’s tortured Frank Cauldhame. Mix in the hatred of religion found in Whit, the hatred of capitalism found in The Business, add a dash of the computer-game references of Complicity, and this had the potential to build triumphantly on themes Banks had explored before. (The puns and word games of previous books can sometimes feel a little forced here, though: at one point, a character says “ate viola”, instead of “et voilà”. I know the person is supposed to be a hideous yuppy but come on, no one’s that much of a monster.)

The Quarry feels like nothing so much as a “greatest hits” and the borrowings don’t just come from the Banks back catalogue: the whole plot seems strangely reminiscent of the film Peter’s Friends. A group who studied together at Bewford University two decades earlier are reunited in a crumbling house, in constant jeopardy of falling down because of the explosions from the quarry next door.

They want to find a videotape they made together back then, which threatens to ruin their futures if it gets out. Alison, who now works for Google, angrily impresses the importance of this task on Kit by taking side swipes at some of the other house guests: “Look, Kit . . . I’m not running a couple of homes for pensioners stinking of urine, I’m not writing about films nobody watches in magazines nobody reads; I’m on course to have the kind of power that can buy and sell the sort of politician Paul dreams of being.”

At this point, Banks might as well have thrown in a thunderclap and a maniacal laugh. What is Alison’s plan to control the puny minds of the world’s sheeple? Sit in a hollowed-out volcano and fiddle with the search algorithm to make Justin Bieber videos marginally harder to find?

There are also problems with the narrator. We are given to understand that Kit is somewhere on the autistic spectrum by his repeated digressions on how many steps it takes to circumnavigate the garden, or the spectacle of him reciting a piece of film criticism from 20 years ago that he can remember word for word. Kit acknowledges that other people can find him irritating: unfortunately, I did, too.

The book’s dark heart is Kit’s dying father, Guy. It’s curious to think that Banks started The Quarry before his cancer diagnosis, because Guy’s rage and pain are only too believable, as is the honest – but rarely spoken – observation that living with a dying person can be as upsetting and stressful as mourning their death.

Having only months to live doesn’t transform a person into a white-robed, beatific angel, it just makes everyone else feel guilty for noticing their flaws.

And Guy has more than a few minor blemishes. He is selfish, leering and bitter: he swears at Kit, calls him useless, and bitches at his son even as he’s wiping his arse for him. “I am waiting for him to die,” writes Kit. “Apart from anything else, my knowing he doesn’t have very much longer to live helps make it easier to ignore the insults and curses and the general unpleasantness that him being in this state leads to.” Guy eventually exits the novel after telling all his friends that they’re failures, and the world is doomed.

That’s the kind of clear-eyed unsentimentality I expect from Iain Banks; and it’s the reason I feel duty-bound to say this book is a stinker. The Banks I admired would never have wanted the sympathy vote.

Bright light: the late Iain Banks in 2008. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage