Well, okay. It is a bit sad. One of the main characters is dying of cancer, after all. It’s also very sad that the author Iain Banks was dying of cancer when he wrote it. This was apparently a strange and tragic coincidence. Banks was only diagnosed when he was quite close to finishing the book. It’s also sad that as he has now died, this will be his last ever novel. But the book itself is, for the most part, not a sad one.
The narrator is Kit. Kit is eighteen and lives with his father Guy in a remote country house which backs onto a quarry. Kit is in some ways like Frank, the “hero” of Banks’ 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory. He lives an isolated existence with his father and is very “different” from most other people. But there the similarities end. Unlike Frank, Kit has normal sexual appetites. He has Asperger’s or something like it, a fact not mentioned specifically until quite far into the book although obvious from the start. He is also (unlike Frank) not homicidal and his father is the one dying of cancer. The action centres on a farewell visit by a group of Guy’s old Uni friends, one of whom may or may not be Kit’s mother. There is also an added mystery (another “quarry” for the characters to search for). Where is a missing tape? Why is it so important and what is on it?
As he demonstrated with Stonemouth, Banks is good at writing about younger people. Kit is a convincing (socially disabled) teenager and even the other characters are well below Banks’ age when he died (fifty nine). Banks has always done reunions, piss ups and lively political discussions well and there are plenty here.
“Look me in the eye, you twat, and tell me you weren’t tempted to vote for him (Boris Johnson),” says one character. “Especially against Ken; you’re more of a Blairite than that lying, war-mongering scumbag is himself.”
Kit is also a master of HeroSpace, a brilliantly realised World of Warcraft-type game as convincing as any of the fictional games Banks created as a backdrop to Complicity, The Steep Approach To Garbadale or in the Culture novel The Player of Games.
The book doesn’t stint on the cancer either. Kit describes the disease: “Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing after a certain point, crowding out the bits you need to keep on living, if you’re unlucky, if the treatments don’t work.” This is as succinct and precise an explanation of cancer as any I can think of. Kit also muses that wiping another person’s bottom is (once one overcomes the initial disgust) more practical than everyone wiping their own .“I can’t see this catching on though,” he concludes.
This is ultimately a great send off for a Scottish writer as great as Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, a science fiction writer in the class of HG Wells and a political writer in the class of Orwell.
Iain Banks. You will be missed.