REVIEW: Karin Schimke
Guy and his son Kit live in a ramshackle old house on the edge of a quarry.
This simple statement stretches to incorporate a universal truth with “ramshackle old house” standing in for “the body”, and “on the edge of a quarry” being a metaphor for the brief moment of consciousness wedged between our birth and our death.
Banks, however – at least when writing as Iain Banks and not the science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks – does his trade in big ideas not in the market place of vague concepts, but in the smallish inner rooms of domesticity and relationships. And so he narrows the action of The Quarry down to one setting, one weekend and one group of friends reunited, probably for the last time before Guy, who has cancer, dies.
For older readers this outline might recall memories of two movies: The Big Chill (made in the eighties) and Peter’s Friends, starring Stephen Fry, made in the UK in the nineties. Both were about a group of old friends coming together for a weekend in a big house.
The location and proximity between the characters at once highlight a shared history, a comfortable rapport and comradeship between the friends, while also showing how time has isolated them, has shoved each on to his or her own life trajectory, away from youthful hopefulness and a sense of belonging, towards the more solitary pursuit of making a life.
In each of those, as in The Quarry, death is the magnet that draws old friends together again. In The Quarry, death’s imminence lives fully and rudely on every page. This is partly thanks to Guy who rages – sometimes theatrically, but never pointlessly – against the premature dying of his own light, and partly because Kit seems to have Asperger Syndrome and doesn’t “do” euphemism.
“How’s Guy?” asks one of the friends who arrives for the weekend.
“Oh, still dying,” I tell her.
“Jeez, Kit” she mutters.
Fans of Banks – and there are, for good reason, many of those – will know that this prolific writer died of cancer earlier this year. It is startling almost to the point of incomprehension that most of The Quarry was written before he was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. In a sharp reminder of how comfortable Banks was with gallows humour – displayed in abundance in his last novel – he said in an interview before he died that it was typical of him to leave his research too late.
He did not have cancer while he was writing this book, and yet he captures its outrages and indignities, the laments it engenders, the rage it elicits, breathtakingly. Guy is a cantankerous old git, made so not by terminal illness, but by inborn arrogance and defiance. His character is a wonderful carrier for conveying the affront that cancer is.
Kit, his son and the book’s narrator, is eighteen, horny, odd, and a world master of a computer game. The detailed descriptions of this parallel universe complement, contrast and accentuate – even satirise – the “real” world.
To Kit falls the unpleasant and thankless task of nursing his father, coaxing him to take his tablets, wiping his bottom, feeding him, all the while being abused and shouted at by his father.
The friends who come for the weekend are recognisable, even stereotypical: the stoner, the carer, the self-serving lawyer with political ambitions, the lovely but tiresomely zealous journalist and the ambitious couple. The supposed purpose of the weekend is to find one of the movies the group made together in their wild, spaced-out student days. The elusive tape gains monstrous proportions in their minds, but meanwhile, they are doing the sort of things old friends do: they carp and tussle, argue about politics, drink too much and go on a pointless expedition – decidedly more difficult with a dying man in tow.
Banks is exceptional at gathering odd characters together and making them talk. His dialogues – all the way through from The Crow Road, to Dead Air, to The Steep Approach to Garbadale, to Stonemouth – are bitty, bitchy and bolshie, often leaving the reader dizzy with amazement and amusement at the casually profound insights that come streaming in between the funny nonsense.
In The Quarry, there is much of that. I hesitate to say this about a writer I admire for precisely this, but almost too much. There are times when you want to walk out of the kitchen or the living room where they are all sitting, gabbling at one another along what are clearly well-established paths of thought for each of them, instead of engaging authentically in proper conversation.
Yet, this slight irritation contributes powerfully to the sense of closeness and claustrophobia already activated by the single-setting location, and also provides an antidote to the strong reminders of life’s brevity, of the pull of nihilism so amply underscored by the fact that the weekend’s action takes place on the rim of a quarry which soon will expand to suck in the house and all that it means to those who have lived there.
Banks has succeeded, sadly for the final time, in providing a close look at family and friends, at the comforts of atheism and pragmatism, at the big questions of morals and meaning and making-do in an imperfect, infuriating world.