The Bridge's Edge: The Sad End of Iain Banks

on Thursday, April 4, 2013
Ok, so I know what you're thinking. Here goes the bloody Bookworm again, whinging about an author he used to love but who has fallen from grace. Just another orgy of schedenfreude from a cranky lit-snob. And while you may be right that I have been disappointed by the last few novels from Iain Banks (at least the non-scifi ones), I'm not here to kneecap him for it. Rather, I want to share a few thoughts on my former favourite author, and long time member of the DEAR list, who has just announced that his forthcoming novel, The Quarry, will be his last as he has been diagnosed with late-stage inoperable gall-bladder cancer. Far be it from me to eulogise someone before they die, but I think Banks's announcement deserves a little reflection.

Back in my university days, I held two books up as my favourites of all time. They remains so - The Trial by Franz Kafka and I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier. To me, those two books manipulated my sense of reality and confidence in both narrator and narrative more than anything I had encountered before or since. I made it my number one university quest (as opposed to say, studying or attending lectures) to find more works that could truly cause my brain to melt in blissful despair. I tried Calvino. I tried Ballard. I tried Vonnegut. Loved them all, too. Yet none of them quite fried the grey matter like Kafka or Cormier. Then my friend Ariel handed me a book that he thought might just do the trick. It was The Bridge by Iain Banks. Most people fawn over The Wasp Factory, he told me, but this is the one you have to read. I did. He was right. The Bridge remains up there in my holy trinity of mindblowing literature.

I devoured the rest of Banks's work and, while he seemed kind of hit and miss (hits: Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass, Complicity, Feersum Endjinn, The Crow Road; misses: Espedair Street, Canal Dreams), I began to await each new book with embarrassing excitement. I never really got into the Culture novels (or pretty much any of the ones he put out as Iain M. Banks) because I don't read much science fiction, but I am told the world he has created is one of the best ever.

Then came Whit, which I saw as the beginning of his creative end. The novels that followed were also patchy, but the best among them were barely as good as his previous misses. A couple, I would go so far to say, were atrocious (I'm looking at you The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth). Yet I have never given up. Iain Banks is responsible just as much as Kafka or Cormier for shaping the way I read and write. Along with the announcement of his illness, Banks spoke of his next and last novel, The Quarry. It seems promising, if not a return to form. I honestly hope that it is great; that he goes out with a massive bang. It is the very least he deserves. His will be a tragic loss for me and the world of literature.


Evan said...

And now Banks comes out in support of BDS:

Ah, well. Great writer, mediocre thinker...

The Bookworm said...

Yeah, it's always interesting when a writer you admire has politics you don't. It is the great Schopenhauer conundrum - can one separate the artist from the person? There's a brilliant book on the topic called Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. I wrote about it in some detail back in January 2010 in the Which Way Jose post. My biggest issue with Banks and the BDS is the ferociousness of his commitment. It borders on pathological and hate-filled.

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