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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era