Reasons to celebrate Iain Banks while we have the chance

Yesterday’s shattering news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer and, at this point, is expected to live for less than a year is difficult to write about for many reasons, not least of which is resisting the temptation to turn in some sort of living eulogy. The widely beloved author of, amongst many others, The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, The Bridge and Complicity, and, as Iain M. Banks, the Culture series of science fiction novels, would also surely abhor any notion of soliciting prayers, or ‘sending positive thoughts’, or being subject to maudlin rending of garments, or any such thing. What follows, then, is a few muddled, scattered, still reeling reasons, from a fan, why we should put such thoughts aside and celebrate Banks while we still have him amongst us:

  • Because every edition of his cause célèbre debut novel The Wasp Factory beyond the first is, at Banks’ insistence, plastered with negative reviews from flustered, morally outraged journalists, a sly acknowledgement of its reputation as the literary equivalent of a video nasty. ‘It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers, is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity,’ spluttered the Irish Times. ‘Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish,’ mused the London Times. The Sunday Express’ verdict – ‘A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics’ – is, unsurprisingly, less sensitive and more offensive than anything contained in the novel.
  • Because of the sheer balls it takes to begin a novel – any novel, much less one that, while funny throughout, is most definitely not a comedy – with the sentence ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’, as Banks did with The Crow Road.
  • Becaue his self-admittedly petty action of cutting up his passport and mailing the pieces to Tony Blair in protest against the 2003 invasion of Iraq nonetheless felt more fit for purpose than the reaction of near enough any other author you’d care to name.
  • Because he trusts his readership enough to have his characters make references to real world pop culture in the way you might quote The Simpsons to friends, not explaining himself as he goes, grabbing bits and pieces from all over the place to deepen character and mine humour, whether the dizzying conversations in The Crow Road that conflate David Byrne with John Byrne with Little Richard, or depending on the reader’s equal knowledge of Russian history and the Eurythmics to reveal his protagonist’s name in The Bridge. Speaking of which…
  • Because The Bridge. Man, just because The Bridge. Intended as an homage to Alasdair Gray’s monumental Lanark, Banks structures his best novel after the Forth Road and Rail Bridges that are the location of its inciting incident and its parallel universe primary locale, pulling decades of history and politics and pop and film and literature and geography and geology and language itself into the story of one man in a coma. That it earns a place alongside Lanark should be some indication of Banks’ success.
  • Because at some point in your late teens or early twenties, you picked up an Iain Banks book – whether for the first time or otherwise – and were astounded by how much of your own life, and the lives of your friends and family, you recognised in it. Not just the broad strokes shared across lives and cultures, but tiny details, things nobody else could possibly know about, much less a guy who had written this book a decade or more before you were reading it. You recognised that he recognised you, and you felt less alone for it.
  • Because, speaking to my university literature class, he expressed this immortal piece of outrage at algebraists: ‘You’re mathematicians! You’ve already got all the numbers, fuck off and leave our letters alone!’
  • Because, in this paragraph from the closing pages of The Crow Road, he managed to find words of humanistic comfort and affirmation in the midst of death and the denial of any kind of afterlife, and if there’s any justice, he’ll be allowed to speak for himself when his time finally does come:

There was no such continuation; it just didn’t work that way, and there should even be a sort of relief in the comprehension that it didn’t. We continue in our children, and in our works and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash. To want more was not just childish, but cowardly, and somehow constipatory, too. Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.

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  1. I only ‘discovered’ Ian Banks last year, starting with The Wasp Factory – weirdly brilliant, The Crow Road – brilliant, Complicity – meh alright, The Bridge – long, Whit – meh alright and currently struggling my way through Walking on Glass. A friend commented on my devouring of them to ask if I was OK and to check I was not manic depressive yet. I mix them up with autobiographies to lighten the load as I can see now where he was coming from! Absorbing, detailed and darkly hilarious, I cant get enough of them. Lets hope this brilliant man surprises all by kicking cancer’s arse (optimistic I know) and bashes out a few more classics in the meantime.

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