By Iain Banks
A rambling old home stands at the edge of a windswept moor. Behind it, a yawning quarry draws ever nearer, each blast shaking the old house and reminding the inhabitants that their time there is coming to an end. What sounds like the setting for a horror novel is, in the hands of Iain Banks, a home for comedy (both high and low), drama, and nostalgia, all of it tinctured by the shadow of ongoing tragedy.
Anyone who has seen the films like The Big Chill will instantly be familiar with the basic structure of this novel. A small group of former university pals, now 40ish, get together for a long weekend of reminiscing, arguing, indulging in drugs, and fumbling toward sex at the home of one of their members. It's a chance to see how they've grown, how they've grown apart, and to look back wistfully at missed opportunities. The group includes the expected mix: a couple who have become wealthy and successful in business, a frustrated writer who has trouble squaring her convictions with her life, a would-be politician, a couple of idealists turned cynics, and the half-baked tag end of the group, still rolling in a haze of drugs unbroken since their days together in university. Sifting through the characters of Chill or Peter's Friends, you can do a good job of mentally casting each role.
Banks, who peppers the book with film references, was surely conscious of the similarity in structure, but in addition to updating the sources of nostalgia by a quarter century, there's one huge difference between the cluster of former friends who gathered in the comfortable space of Harold and Sarah Cooper's South Carolina vacation home, and the group that huddles together in chilly Willoughtree House. The former classmate who brought everyone together in The Big Chill was dead. In The Quarry the situation is much worse—he's still dying.
More on The Quarry below the fold.
Guy Hyndersley, formerly the "golden boy" of the group, has terminal cancer. After years of sliding slowly downhill, his treatment has stopped and he has only weeks left to live. Withered and impotent, Guy clearly aches to see his old friends, but he also envies their health and good fortune. Bitter and abusive in his agony, both pitiful and hateful, he's become a footnote in his own story—a prop the others work around. And he knows it. For much of the book Guy is offscreen, fitfully sleeping through a drug fugue, while the rest opine, laugh and wrangle. When present, there's little Guy can add but the constant smoke of his anger and resentment. That the others allow him to get away with vileness that surely would be called out if he was healthy, only makes Guy more resentful. His condition makes the others uncomfortable enough that it's clear several of them would not be present at all, had Guy not dangled the prospect of locating a mysterious videotape as an additional bit of emotional bait to lure them in.
However, Guy isn't the only resident of Willoughtree House. The story is actually told through the eyes of Kit, Guy's 18-year-old son. It's not spelled out expressly, but Kit quite obviously has a disorder that's somewhere along the broad spectrum of autism. However, don't expect this to provide any sort of crimped perspective. Far from it. Kit's emotional distance and intrinsic tendency to analyze any situation makes him a nearly ideal narrator. As Kit breaks apart each statement and reviews every nuance to be sure that he's following the carefully worked out script of socially acceptable responses he's constructed over the years, the reader gets the chance to review background and relationships without being subject to great gouts of exposition—and the chance to consider just how pointless much of what passes for social interaction really is. Kit can understand emotions and has learned to parse emotional cues, though he doesn't necessarily share in those emotions. He reasons as well—better—than any of the others. It makes him both a fine character and razor-sharp camera.
Kit's situation may not be as immediately dire as that of his dying father, but it provides one of the many levels on which Banks mulls over his thoughts on the ending of things. Faced with the impending death of his father and the loss of his home, Kit responds with a sort of passive denial. No, he doesn't know where he will be in a month, but he's sure he will be fine, just fine, though he can't so much as summon a mental image of what that fine will look like. Besides, Kit already thinks of his life in Willoughtree House as a kind of space filler between sessions of his "real" life spent playing an extensive and challenging online game. Though he has fantasies of meeting a girl, having sex, forming a relationship, Kit is far more comfortable working within the well-defined, clearly scored, and simply more fair rules of a different world.
On another level, the college chums contribute to a conversation on the grander topic of is-anything-worth-it? Is there value in scrambling to the top of the business heap and coming home with money and shiny gadgets? What about gaining respect and perhaps a seat at the tables of power? Is there value in critiquing creative activity, or even in that creative activity itself? Is spending your life wreathed in pot fumes really worse than spending it climbing the ranks at a legal firm? Ultimately, is there even anything to be gained in relationships, in loving, in being loved ... or is that also just a kind of pointless record keeping on a slate that's soon to be erased? Is any of it more real than Kit's game?
Finally, all the characters are set against a background that provides a none too subtle metaphor for the personal drama. Willoughtree House was once a grand mansion complete with a servant's floors, sparkling fixtures, and the kind of jingly bell pulls you see on Downton Abbey. Now, after decades of decline, it's entered its own terminal phase. Broken roof tiles leak water down into empty rooms full of musty, damp old papers, out buildings slump on crumbling foundations, and vegetation takes root in the leaf-choked gutters. There's no point in fixing the place up, as the quarry has already made arrangements to buy the property. The house will soon be destroyed. Maybe this month, maybe next.
Speaking of the quarry, that vast, ever-expanding, gaping maw that looms behind everything, converting the landscape into rubble and the stage for our little play into waste, is clearly a metaphor for... well, yeah.
For those who have read only the Culture novels, note that this is Banks writing without his middle initial. In other words, it's mainstream, not sci-fi, though the recurrent themes of artificial intelligence, avatars, and alternate lives are interwoven into the novel, especially in reference to Kit's life online. It's also the last Iain Banks book, with or without the "M." Days before the book reached publication, Iain Banks died of cancer.
Knowing that, it's hard not to read everything in this book as commentary on Bank's own ending. Guy, facing a hard truth and unable to find pleasure in anything, is Banks. Kit, uncertain of what it means to be removed from the structure that's housed his life and not knowing how or if things will continue in some other form, is Banks. The collection of old friends, endlessly turning over the value of the things, ideals, and loves in their lives, is Banks. Willoughtree House, shaking toward its conclusion as the titular quarry inches closer, is Banks.
And not just Banks. It's also any of us when forced to confront that damn approaching hole we'd just as soon forget.
Say, maybe this is a horror novel after all.