Though we were all aware it was coming, if resolutely optimistic that it somehow wouldn’t, few expected it quite so soon after its initial discovery, and on this past Sunday, word filtered out from his family and friends that Iain Banks had died, aged 59, of the inoperable gall bladder cancer he revealed to the world a little over two months ago. When that news initially broke, I wrote here that an author so thoroughly humanistic, so vital, who revelled so in the here and now, would likely abhor any kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth on his part, and that we should celebrate him while we still had the chance. Now we may no longer have the chance to say it to his face, or in any kind of form that will reach him, but if the legacy of a great man means anything to his readers, the celebration should by no means be ended by a piddling thing like death.
Banks’ novels – even at their angriest, most desolate and despairing – were vibrant, (sometimes literally) explosive, desperately heartfelt tributes to the wonder of life in all its facets and forms. At their best, they function as guides to laughing in the face of oblivion. Rather than wallow in grief, then, bereft fans would be best advised to revisit the likes of The Crow Road, or The Bridge, or even the bilious, choked howl of rage against the futility of it all that is Complicity, and to pass them on to others who have yet to experience them.
Banks’ untimely passing understandably overshadowed Sunday’s earlier publication of the first reviews of what has indeed, as he himself predicted, proven to be his final novel, The Quarry. In a particularly upsetting case of life imitating art, the novel – close to completion upon Banks’ diagnosis at the start of March – has turned out to deal with the final weeks of a middle-aged final stage cancer patient. It is, of course, impossible to say how much these early reactions are coloured by their real-world mirror, but the notices have been warm.
Hannah McGill, writing in Scotland on Sunday, calls it ‘a state-of-the-self book’, which makes the point ‘that the stuff of life, the stuff you’d feel the loss of most keenly if you were leaving too soon, constitutes stoned conversations, college memories and hopelessly out-of-date catchphrases from The Fast Show, more than the sort of dramatic MacGuffins deployed by writers to impose structure on shapeless, illogical old reality.’ The List’s Paul Gallagher, meanwhile, says that ‘The plot is arguably too slight, but Banks’ handling of big, complex themes is skillful and satisfying, and he concludes on a quietly moving note of compassion.’ The novel is published on 20 June.
If I might end on one last, self-indulgent note, as a fan who was guided through young adulthood by Banks, I threw together an impromptu tribute of sorts on my own blog on Sunday night, still reeling. To say I’ll miss him is an understatement.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.