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The Quarry by Iain Banks

Published by Redhook/Orbit on June 25, 2013

One of the characters in Iain Banks' final novel is dying of cancer, the disease that ended Banks' own life, although Banks did not receive his diagnosis until the novel was nearly complete. Banks lightens a serious story about death with characteristic humor touching on a variety of subjects, including movies, religion, British politics, AA, families, and holistic medicine. Many of the laughs come from a character who expresses himself with uncommon bluntness. Kit Hyndersley is insensitive, self-centered, introverted, and autistic. He feels most comfortable when he is online, in a role-playing game called HeroSpace, where clearly defined rules govern his life and expectations are unambiguous. Some people feel sorry for Kit because he is mentally ill; others pity him because he doesn't have a "real" life. His father's friend Holly is teaching him the conventions of polite social interaction, most of which he regards as inane. Kit knows he doesn't think like other people, but he's content and sees little reason to change. His version of happiness might not be the norm, but as he sees it, "happiness is happiness." In any event, the reader wouldn't want him to change because he's perfect the way he is ... perfectly infuriating, perfectly amusing, and (unhampered by the filters of politeness) perfectly honest.

Kit is eighteen. He lives with his disagreeable father, Guy, in a dilapidated house on the edge of a quarry. Guy's cancer does nothing to improve his disposition. Kit doesn't know his mother. Guy has kept her identity a closely guarded secret, sometimes hinting it might be someone Kit knows, other times inventing improbable liaisons with women in distant places.

A group of friends from Guy's university days, fellow students of Film and Media Studies, have come to spend the weekend in his house, helping to empty it of clutter. Their ulterior motive for visiting their dying friend is to search for a video they once made that would be embarrassing (in an unspecified way) if its contents were ever made public. Knowing that people tend to avoid "the very sick and the very dying," Guy dangled the tape to orchestrate this (presumably) final gathering of old mates. The result is a British version of The Big Chill as the friends spend most of the weekend talking, drinking, and doing drugs.

The plot that loosely binds The Quarry revolves around twin mysteries: the identity of Kit's mother and the contents of the tape. As you'd expect from a Banks novel, quirky characters are the novel's strength. Guy is often an overbearing jerk -- and probably was even before he was dying -- but Banks creates sympathy for the man by illuminating his fears and regrets. It's also easy to like Kit despite his many faults, or perhaps because of them. Although they aren't developed in equal depth, the other characters are damaged in conventional ways. Banks seems to be suggesting that we're all damaged and that Kit's mental illness is just a different kind of damage, perhaps organic in nature, while the other characters have been ground down by life's experiences.

One of Banks' characters argues that people have reunions like this because they want to measure themselves against known reference points, and maybe that's the point of the book. None of the characters measure up as well as they might like, but few of us ever do. Kit is a bit young to be measured, and to the extent that this is his coming-of-age story, it's fair to say that Kit, despite his limited ability to change, does learn something about how to live his life. Unlike Banks' strongest efforts, however, The Quarry doesn't pack many surprises or dramatic moments, although Guy's anger and frustration that cancer has taken control of his life is realistic and moving. The resolutions of the twin mysteries are a bit disappointing, given the buildup they receive. For that reason, while I've never encountered a Banks novel (including his science fiction) that wasn't worth reading, I'd put The Quarry in the bottom half of my stack of Banks novels. That still makes it a better novel than most authors can manage. It's sad that the stack will never grow taller.


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