Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Quarry by Iain Banks

on Thursday, June 20, 2013
Grief is a pretty crappy basis for a book review. Iain Banks's untimely death earlier this month was sad - especially for those of us who worshipped his early work - but we must be careful not to lionise his final novel without bothering to properly read it. Try tell that to other reviewers, who have called The Quarry a return to form, classic Banks catching his second wind or any number of similar platitudes. Put simply, it isn't. Thankfully, it also is not the sort of abomination that saw him demoted from my DEAR list three books ago. So while you had better not approach it expecting The Bridge, Complicity or The Wasp Factory, you can also safely pick it up without catching syphilis from another The Steep Approach To Garbadale.

By now you all would have heard the plot - Kit, an Aspergers teen (apparently Banks wasn't hip to the new DSM-5), lives in a house with his cancer stricken dad when a bunch of the latter's old friends come for one last weekend hoorah. They talk, they reminisce, they fight, they search for the home made porno they made as uni students. When he's not playing computer games, Kit tries to figure out who his mum is. Then, of course, there is the quarry itself, ever-expanding, soon to consume the land on which Kit's house stands. Hello thinly-veiled metaphor.

It is a strange beast, this book, almost a crucible of Banks's earlier works. It's got the slightly off-kilter narrator (although Kit is extremely reliable given he cannot lie whereas Frank in The Wasp Factory was the polar opposite - even he didn't know the truth). It takes place in a typically Banksian environment; hostile, menacing, yet strangely familiar. There's a science fiction thread, weak though it is, with occasional narrative forays into HeroSpace, a World of Warcraft-like online game. Heck, one of the climactic scenes even takes place on a friggin' bridge. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of what I didn't like about late era Iain Banks. That guy liked to grab a bunch of mostly annoying characters, all of whom had long ago fled their home towns, and plonk them right back where they started. There's always a 'big' reason, in this case Guy's cancer. There's always a lot of waxing lyrical, a settling of scores, a lot of boring chatter. The Quarry is no different. Guy's friends can talk. A lot. Of shit. Banks pretends there's a plot to be found - the porno, the mum, the quarry - but even the most generous reader would struggle to credit them with any substance.

The novel's real saving grace is Guy himself, a truly wonderful Banksian creation. The bloke is bitter, cantankerous and full of hilariously jaded opinions on just about everything. It is the luxury of the dying, I suppose. Obviously, many people will read Guy's opinions as those of Banks himself. The two have (had) a lot in common. Yet, according to the author's wife, Banks had finished the novel well before being told of his diagnosis. If that's true, it certainly is a strange coincidence. Either way, Guy gives Banks a fantastic platform to air a whole bunch of home truths about our shitty world.

Going purely on recent form (The Steep Approach To Garbadale, Transition, Stonemouth... well, pretty much everything post-Complicity), The Quarry ought to have sucked wasp factories. It doesn't. That said, it is nowhere near the calibre of his early works. Neither whimper, nor bang, Iain Banks has gone out with a moderate pop. At least I'll always have The Bridge.

3 Out Of 5 Crow Roads


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