Banks’ swan song of context, context, context (5/5)
While I’ve been an avid fan of Banks’ science fiction novels and, having collected and enjoyed all them, I moved on to his standard fiction—a literary foray into the many cerebral folds that make a complicated man a complicated author. However, these cross-genre dalliances have been a mere sampling of a third of his bibliography of fiction: Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985), The Bridge (1986), The Business (1999), and Dead Air (2002). The recent passing of Iain Banks sent a tide of sadness through this year’s reading experience; Jack Vance and Frederik Pohl’s deaths this year didn’t affect me nearly as much as Iain Banks.
Aside from the new paperback edition of Hydrogen Sonata (2012), his fiction novels Complicity (1993) and A Song of Stone (1997) are still to-be-read on my shelves.
Inside flap synopsis:
“Eighteen-year-old Kit is weird: big, strange, odd, socially disabled, on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end, to ‘nutter’ at the other. At least Kit knows who his father is; he and Guy live together in a decaying country house on the unstable brink of a vast quarry. His mother's identity is another matter. Now, though, his father's dying, and old friends are gathering for one last time.
‘Uncle’ Paul's a media lawyer now; Rob and Ali are upwardly mobile corporate bunnies; pretty, hopeful Pris is a single mother; Haze is still living up to his drug-inspired name twenty years on; and fierce, protective Hol is a gifted if acerbic critic. As young film students they lived at Willoughtree House with Guy, and they've all come back because they want something. Kit, too, has his own ulterior motives. Before his father dies he wants to know who his mother is, and what's on the mysterious tape they're all looking for. But most of all he wants to stop time and keep his father alive.”
The isolated estate of Willoughtree House borders a lonely stone quarry. Dilapidated and rickety, the house sits on land which the quarry wishes to buy in order to expand its operation, but Guy Hyndersley and his son Kitchener (Kit) still live in the rather unkempt house. In his late thirties, Guy is slowing dying of cancer yet remains a bitter man, “somebody with the reputation of a wastrel of legendary proportions” (138), and even his so-called friends call him a “feckless waster” (215); bitter about his awkward son, bitter about the attention and benedictions, bitter about the ramshackle house, he’s mostly bitter about the way his life is falling apart:
Maybe there’s always been something in Guy’s life that was falling apart. Until finally, as well as the house and the car and whatever else, the thing falling apart ended up being himself. Not that cancer makes you fall apart so much … as add bits on. Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing … crowding out the bits you need to keep on living … (128)
Painted with disappoint in nearly all aspects of his life, the one ledge which Guy clings to is his keen intelligence, which he unfortunately brandishes with vindictiveness and degradation. His socially inept son absorbs the frequent squalls of bitterness directed at him, yet still cares for his father by cooking for him, checking his medications, and cleaning up after his bowel movements. Staunch of succumbing to the worst of his ailment, Guy simply feels numb, “yet to break down, yet to cry properly, yet to feel any terror or impending sense of doom” (44).
This acceptance of circumstance fails to penetrate Guy’s veil of hatred for all things progressive as his own body regresses, a cancer which is “entirely, perfectly personalized … a kind of unwilled suicide, where, initially at least, one small part of the body has taken a decision that will lead to the death of the rest. Cancer feels like a betrayal” (137). Where cancer is a betrayal, friendship stands on firm ground as his university friends from decades ago come to visit him, but their arrival is tainted by their personal histories and expectations. Their younger days, spent in the same house, was a time “full of hope, hash and hormones” (130) and a time where seven of them forged a friendship which they had thought would last forever. Even with Guy’s imminent demise, this broken group of petty iconoclasts, middling has-beens, and coke fiends is not squarely facing this fading reality of eternal longevity.
Kit feels the occasional tinge of regret for his father’s pending death, but his detached demeanor is unable to properly put circumstances into perspective. Holly is one of Guy’s friends who has taken Kit under her wing so that he can be more socially apt; her suggestions and criticisms of his verbal, facial, and bodily expressions are duly noted by Kit, who constantly reminds himself of the littlest social nuances, such as nodding in acknowledgement, filling gaps in conversation with “Ah”, and smiling at silence. For the most part, Kit simply stays home and lives a life of secrecy behind his father’s back.
Not wealthy by any monetary measure, Guy and Kit live with the bare essentials in their lean-to multi-storey house. Kit, in his secretive, almost shameful, manner, takes a very active role in an online game named HeroQuest. Once a mere hobby, his meticulousness spawned an obsession with note taking which resulted in something close to perfection in gaming—he has a legendary status among gamers and takes on challenges unfit for anyone lesser. From his skills, he has earned thousands of pounds sterling selling virtual goods in HeroSpace. This money is managed by Holly yet remains secret from Guy, as is Kit’s internet connection and smartphone.
But there’s one secret being kept from Kit—the mysterious content of an S-VHS-C camcorder tape. Everyone is at the Willoughtree House on the long weekend with that mission in mind: find, watch, and destroy the troubling tape. The seven friends maintain that the material would be embarrassing to all, but the evasive attitude of the group is having Kit simply guess that it must be a sex tape, an accusation which they continually deny. Being the domain of meticulous Kit, they allow Kit to organize a search party through the house, garage, and outhouses. Given the age and dereliction of the house, surely the rooms are full of random boxes, stacks of paper, shelves of miscellany, and drawers of doodads; all bases must be covered so that the tape can be found.
Imbibing in alcohol as a lesser vice to their later marijuana and cocaine, the dysfunctional septet relive their bygone younger years while letting Kit participate, though his social maturity flounders when exposed to group situations and seemingly intimate one-on-one circumstances. The hulking shape of the man-boy sits dourly with knees at chest level, straining to put into context the traffic of conversation, the mix of facial expression, and the barrage of body language. A much simpler world awaits him while playing HeroQuest or walking through the garden.
Beyond the garden’s wall is the void of the quarry, an ever-growing expanse of waste yet still churning our tons of rock for commercial use. Like Guy’s internal cancer eating through his tissue, the void is also a slowly advancing abyss of which there is no return; as Guy’s cancer will claim his life, so too will the quarry claim the house—Kit is naively unprepared for both inevitable circumstances.
Context. If it weren’t for Iain Banks’ untimely death, The Quarry would not have packed the wallop of emotion packed into the morbid scenes of Guy’s slow, cancerous demise. Largely, The Quarry has very little plot direction; the entire novel is set over the period of three days and doesn’t build much steam toward any purpose. The span of time, in one sense, does point toward the eventual finding of the S-VHS-C camcorder tape, but this quest is secondary to the main thrust of the novel: relationships.
The Quarry isn’t so much a plot-based novel as a character based foray-cum-sympathetic voyage; the reader should have come for the frisson of relationship but, admittedly, the reader has come for Iain Banks’ swan song. Being objective about your favorite author’s last book is too difficult for this reviewer… so take this into consideration: context plays a huge role when reading The Quarry. Going beyond the traditional “text with the text” or “text around the text”, The Quarry’s context lays in the circumstances surrounding the text; not only is the book relevant to the author’s untimely fate, the book also reflects life in the year 2013. The pang of timeliness may bestow a “period piece” denouncement upon the novel, but as the author’s last novel it seems all too fitting.
The accumulation of tension doesn’t arise from the ambient plot; rather, the frail Guy drags along an air of discontent which gathers momentum in the last quarter of the novel. Bitter as may be and as insincere as he may come across, Guy still maintains a very human element of regret, though his protracted sense of regret is a tad depressing; the mental depression is understandable given his morbid physical state—a transference of morbidity from body to mind. This calls to mind John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1991) where a similar cancer-ridden “anti-protagonist” (Ben Turnbull) faces his death with a similar sense of loath and regret: “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle” (Updike, 1991, p.51). Both, Bank’s Guy and Updike’s Ben, cherish the capacity and brilliance of their mind yet lash out in antisocial regret when succumbing to age, idleness, and sickness.
It’s difficult to sympathize with embittered Guy (perhaps you’re not supposed to like him). He’s rarely passionate for anything other than denouncing the government or making snide remarks aimed at his son. His one element of comfort is the medication he’s on, a now necessary drug-state as opposed to his once recreational drug binges… but even when these opiates are failing: “Bit of a buzz off, that [opiates]. Though it doesn’t feel like a vice when it’s medicinal. Fucking cancer … Even takes the fun out of opiates” (123). His son measures Guy’s dosages so he can’t overdose and his friends doubt Guy’s will to live and keep a watchful eye on his location so he can’t suicide. When Guy does find a minute to contemplate alone outside the house, his precious time left on Earth is interrupted. He probably looks forward to the solitude of coma and death.
Compared to Guy’s acerbic remarks and foul language, his son kit is a blessed saint. Though a bit dull in terms of emotion and charm, Kit, behind his towering façade and unresponsive face, is an intellectual coming to terms with his social inadequacies. Because of his disconnectedness, Kit makes an excellent observer; from the perfect method for stirring tea,
The trick is to contra-rotate …. count eight rotations clockwise, then a brief pause, the seven the other way …. There’s less undissolved sugar to stir into the tea by now …. Then you can do surface stirring …. That’s when you’ve put too much milk in your tea and there’s hardly room even to put the teaspoon in … you need to blow across to one side … to get a bit of circulation going. (184-186),
to the nebulousness of saying “okay”,
[W]e all have our own definitions what ‘okay’ means, and we each might have several different definitions, depending on context. Which allows a lot of room for ambiguity and even misunderstanding. I sort of disapprove of such terminological inexactitude and laxity, but … this sort of leeway is exactly what people are looking for, especially in a situation where they hope to be reassured. (244),
Kit attempts to make sense of a world that isn’t aware of itself. He prefers clear, cut and dry situations in which language doesn’t use parisology or polysemy; a single word for a single object, a concise part of speech which dictates, without runaround or vagueness, exactly what it is trying to convey. The flexibility of language stymies Kit’s attempts at integrating himself in social circles, be it at his old school or with his father’s friends. Due to the circumstances, however, Kit is forced to confront his social awkwardness while the six friends stay at the Willoughtree House. This taxes his inexperience of applying his fine sense of observation and recollection; for the most part he simply observes, being unable to juggle the salvos of dialogue or the erratic undulations of facial expressions—it’s his nature to read into all of this.
Without the context of Iain Banks’ own death, this novel would have simply been a funny and acerbic three-star read; however, the accidental and circumstantial context of Guy’s cancer and Iain’s cancer is too large to ignore and, thus, plays a major role when reading the novel. If you’re not a fan of Banks, if you don’t love everything he wrote or if you don’t know about the man himself, this novel’s message, wit, charm, and draw would probably be lost on you. But as Iain Banks’ swan song, this is a fitting last novel having brought together most of the author’s reoccurring themes: Scotland, drug use, bitterness, castles, and regret. Because of the context, The Quarry offers more to think about than two of the author’s other great “ponder on this” books: The Bridge and Walking on Glass. In all of this, I still find comfort and joy.