Banksability

Ian Sansom

  • The Quarry by Iain Banks
    Little, Brown, 326 pp, £18.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 4087 0394 6

Except for the lucky few, the rewards for writing are meagre, if not non-existent. As a money-making enterprise, writing makes no sense. According to the UK’s official graduate careers website, prospects.ac.uk (a depressing but entirely reliable source, to which I direct my own eager students when they come to me for advice before wisely becoming arts administrators, baristas, or hedge-fund managers), the annual average income for professional writers aged 25-34 from writing alone is – well, what do you think? £10,000? £20,000? £30,000? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. You are so so wrong. According to the most recent figures, the annual average income for professional writers is £5000, less than a third of the national average, and about the price of a second-hand Vauxhall Zafira with 100,000 miles on the clock. (My entire last year’s income from writing paid for a second-hand Vauxhall Zafira with 100,000 miles on the clock.) Face facts. Wake up and smell the Tesco Everyday Value Coffee Granules, which at 57p for a 100g jar is my current beverage of choice; you won’t find cheaper outside Costco, which is where you’ll be shopping if you decide to follow your dream of becoming the next David Foster Wallace – who did have to work, incidentally, like the rest of us. (At Pomona College, Foster Wallace’s ‘Prose Fiction’ class consisted entirely of getting students to read mass-market bestsellers.) Why are there no great novelists any more, critics often wail, as they hark back to a golden age of exquisite sentences and profound moral depths. There are no great novelists any more for the same reason there are no longer any sugar plantations in the Caribbean, cotton mills in Manchester, parlour-maids, benefactors or self-martyring subservient spouses: times have changed. Writing – particularly the writing of novels – requires the twin privileges of time and money, and if you haven’t got them you are almost certainly doomed to failure, ground down by the exigencies of the day job, and the second and the third jobs, and the inevitable complications of family life, or the inevitable complications of the lack of a family life, and the lure of alternative employment. Ignore your inner urges. No man but a blockhead etc. Do anything else.

Iain Banks was not a blockhead. He was one of the few winners in one of the world’s oldest and most respected winner-takes-all systems. So now that the obituaries have been written and the tributes paid, how might the rest of us claim our inheritance? What can we quarry from The Quarry? Here, simply, and with the deepest respect, is ‘A Personal Guide to the Bankable Banks: Ten Top Tips for Banksability’.

First, he wrote a lot. About a book a year, 28 novels in a 29-year working life, plus the non-fiction Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2004), and the usual amount of short stories, introductions, articles and ephemera. He began with The Wasp Factory in 1984, and never stopped. His final novel, The Quarry, was almost complete by the time he received his cancer diagnosis in March this year. He died on 9 June. ‘On the morning of 4 March,’ he said in a final interview in the Guardian,

I thought everything was hunky-dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the fourth I’d been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I’d written 90 per cent of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I’d done my words for the day, I’d taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy.

Just read that again. He took his laptop to the hospital on the day of his diagnosis, and started writing. Wannabes, dabblers, hobbyists, Sunday painters and Starbucks-scribblers, take note.

Second, he effectively doubled his chances of success by writing both literary fiction as Iain Banks and genre science fiction as Iain M. Banks. This isn’t to suggest that he consciously set out to double his chances. But it probably helped that half of what he wrote appealed to rather sensitive, repressed, adolescent and/or arrested adolescent readers, and the other half to – well, also to rather sensitive, repressed, adolescent and/or arrested adolescent readers. I’m describing myself here, obviously, and many others, but the point is that although the audience may have been the same, the readers came to him via different routes, and there were simply more of them. Also, usefully, and crucially, SF writers attract not only readers but actual fans, if not of the full-blown psychotic Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery type, then at least of the autograph-hunting, book-collecting, sign-my-T-shirt kind. Indeed, as Banks explains in Raw Spirit, in one of several amusing asides about ‘British SF Fandom in the Late 20th Century, Its Customs and Mores’, the readership of SF is so large and so enthusiastic that there are not only famous SF writers, there are famous fans of SF writers, superfans, über-fans, of the kind who set up fansites, fan mags and who are generally fan-tastic. Most writers struggle to drum up enough people to attend a reading at a provincial library: SF novelists attend conventions. In hotels.

Third, for all their apparent variety, his books are entirely consistent. To all intents and purposes, The Wasp Factory (1984) = Espedair Street (1987) = Stonemouth (2012) = all the others. So, to borrow the terms of online marketing, if you like The Bridge (1986), you’ll love Canal Dreams (1989). (In fact, this isn’t a good example, because if you do like The Bridge, which is Banks’s third and most accomplished novel, in which his SF and lit-fic instincts are entirely in sync, you might not only not love Canal Dreams, his seventh and least accomplished novel, you might loathe it, but at least you know what to expect. Canal Dreams is merely a poor version of the real thing.) The novel The Quarry resembles most is The Crow Road: in both books, a group of characters gather together, there’s a secret, there’s a missing or mysterious father figure, and there’s a lot of Banks-beloved drinking and dope smoking. The book also strikingly resembles two films, The Big Chill (1983) and Peter’s Friends (1992): it’s all about friendship and death, and friends gathering in a big house for a final hurrah, and asking themselves what’s become of their lives; it’s a book about growing up. The Quarry also shares a number of similarities with The Wasp Factory: like the psychopathic Frank in The Wasp Factory, The Quarry’s narrator, Kit, is a troubled teen stuck in a house with strange and unpredictable adults. What, the novel seems to be asking, is normal adult behaviour? What is innocence? What is youth? How shall we then live? In both his first and last novels Banks makes use of an odd, eloquent teenage narrator; arguably, everything he wrote was a Bildungsroman. It can’t be said of every novelist that their work has such overarching formal and intellectual coherence. It’s possibly true of, say, Philip Roth, from Goodbye, Columbus to Nemesis, but Anthony Burgess? If you like A Clockwork Orange you’ll love Inside Mr Enderby? Or Margaret Atwood? If you like The Handmaid’s Tale you’ll love Alias Grace? With Banks, you knew what you were getting (and the excellent old Abacus black and white book jackets meant you could see it coming).

Fourth, what you were getting was a style that wasn’t at all ‘difficult’ or opaque, ensuring a low barrier to entry for readers. Again, this is probably a question of innate style rather than deliberate intention – as if one were able to separate the two – but if you want to sell a lot of books, keep it simple. By all means, if you are seeking hipper-than-thou cult status, get your swag on, turn up the phaser and reverse delay, put your effects bank into overdrive and go ahead and blow their minds. If not, stick to three chords, verse, chorus and maybe a little reverb. For Banks, ideas were important and plots were paramount. His imaginative powers were extraordinary but no one would call him a prose stylist. Perhaps all the smart but simple teenage narrators were more than coincidence?

Fifth, and frankly, there was little to distinguish between Banks the author and Banks the narrator, which meant that the books were entirely suffused with his personality, in exactly the same way that, say, Virgin is suffused with essence of Branson, Apple remains heavily scented with Jobs, and London, alas, now stinks to high heaven of Boris. When you read a novel by Banks you are conscious of being on the receiving end of a strange transfer of personality. Writers who have this quality of self-transmission, the ability – or the curse – of being able to render the peculiar and particular shapes and dimensions of their intellectual and emotional lives on the page, tend to attract great followings. Burroughs, say. Or Brautigan. Plath. Dr Johnson. Paulo Coelho.

Sixth, his highly developed sense of humour was of the popular, low-down, Mock the Week variety: confident, childish, bragging, and occasionally bullying. The books are funny, but rarely witty: when Banks attempts wordplay it tends to bawdy. Verity in The Crow Road, for example, is described as ‘the jewel beside the jowls; the girl who, for me, had put the lectual in intellectual, and phany in epiphany and the ibid in libidinous!’ The wince count is as high as ever in The Quarry, with riffs on the titles of student films, including Summer with Harmonica, Full Dinner Jacket and An American Werewolf on Lithium, and Banks’s usual above average interest in bodily functions. There is some soft-target satire, with one character sending up his own corporate-speak (‘Pre-identing up-torrent crisis nodes and realitising positive issue-relevant impending-threat-modulated countermeasure envision-sets’) and a stand-up-style recounting by Kit of his thoughts while drying his hands using a Dyson Airblade: ‘I confess I had been wondering what it would feel like if you could sort of swing one of these off the wall like a drawbridge or something and fit your cock into it, letting the blade of hot air pummel it as you moved it in and out.’ Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been a wonderful audience! Quite often the pleasure to be had from reading a book by Iain Banks is similar to the pleasure to be had from watching an old episode of Top Gear on Dave: it’s pure blokeology. There’s quite a lot of stonking talk about cars in all the books – or just kit generally. Consider Phlebas (1987), title from ‘The Waste Land’ (Banks did do an English degree, after all), begins with a description of a spacecraft that reads like copy from a spacecraft dealership brochure: ‘Inside its warship body, in narrow, unlit, unheated, hard-vacuum spaces, constructor drones struggled to install or complete sensors, displacers, field generators, shield disruptors, laserfields, plasma chambers, warhead magazines, manoeuvring units, repair systems and the thousands of other major and minor components required to make a functional warship.’ I’ll take two!

Seven, his subject matter was often sex and violence, which have been consistently proven to sell, not least when combined in a highly disturbing and possibly sinister fashion, as in Complicity (1993), which is technically Banks’s most cunning work, with its combination of first and second-person points of view, and runner-up only to The Wasp Factory in its ability to wrong-foot the reader. An investigation of forms of complicity in Banks’s writing – can he be held responsible for his male characters’ misogyny? – was begun by the critic Craig Cairns in his book ‘Complicity’: A Reader’s Guide (2002). I’d hope any scholarly study would devote a chapter to the question of Banks’s women, and be able to tell me exactly what’s unsettling about this sentence from The Quarry: ‘Of Dad’s old housemates, Pris is the prettiest, but Hol is still an attractive woman and even though she’s more like an aunt – and, just possibly, a lot closer than that – she’s the kind of woman you can sort of have fantasies about and not feel she’d be horrified if she ever found out.’ Not sure: I think she might be horrified.

Eight, he was a great ranter. ‘Amber warning of rants ahead,’ a character in The Quarry remarks. No warning is necessary: all of Banks’s books are likely at any moment to go off on one, with all the ferocity of a half-pissed 18-year-old born-again socialist at his first NUS meeting. In Raw Spirit Banks explores the impact of having been an only child (he had a sister, Martha Ann, who was born with spina bifida and lived for just six weeks) and suggests that this may partly explain his ‘assumption of superiority’. Maybe so. The targets of his endless rage are straw men: Israel is a rogue state, the rich are parasites, bankers are wankers. He was certainly a political being, in a stunty kind of way: he cut up his passport and sent it to Downing Street, accompanied by a letter in the Guardian, in protest at the Iraq War – but he wasn’t Giorgio Agamben. ‘What a choice,’ he writes in The Quarry, ‘Neo-Labour, the toxic Agent-Orange-Book Lib Dems or the shithead rich-boy bastardhood that is the Tories. We really are all fucked, aren’t we?’ For the record, The Quarry contains the last and arguably one of the best Banks rants. It begins on page 292 with ‘I shall … consider myself well rid of this island’s pathetic, grovelling population of celebrity-obsessed, superficiality-fixated wankers’ and ends a full two pages later. (In the Guardian interview, Banks said he wrote this passage on the day of his diagnosis: ‘It was an exaggeration of what I was feeling, but it was me thinking: “How can I use this to positive effect?” Because I was feeling a bit kicked in the guts at this point. So I thought, “OK, I’ll just give Guy a good old rant.”’) Examples of good old rants from other novels are manifold, but Dead Air (2002) essentially consists of one long vent in the voice of Ken Nott, a shock jock who lives up to his name. Sometimes, in Dead Air and elsewhere, the diatribes are as dull as a bad blog post: ‘I hated this new coffee culture; people wandering around with these pint-sized cartons full of a mild, warm, watery drug it takes about twenty words and five questions just to fucking order.’ At other times the prose comes closer to boiling point, or at least to the sound of strong drink talking, as in The Quarry, when Banks’s alter ego, Guy, gets onto the question of the poor pious Chilean miners: ‘You were rescued by tens of millions of dollars, mining experts from around the fucking world, the mobilised resources of the whole of the fucking state of Chile, months of hard, grinding work, calculation and expertise and heavy engineering, you superstitious Catholic FUCKWIT!’ Unfortunately, all characters tend to sound the same at this high pitch.

Nine, he was Scottish, which is not to suggest that he was possessed of some unique national mode of thinking or some special linguistic tartan twirl – though The Bridge is undoubtedly a definitive 20th-century Scottish novel, in both subject matter and style, to set alongside Lanark, Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – but rather that he was born with the advantage of not being hobbled by class in the way most English novelists are. He often wrote about class – see The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007), which rather self-consciously contrasts the lives of the rich and poor – but his base unit of measurement was clan. Most of his books deal with complex kin relationships which exceed but are related to family. Being Scottish also meant he could write about the countryside without sounding like Edward Thomas. His landscapes are almost always damp, brown and unkempt. The Bankscape is not the South of England.

Ten, and finally, he was immensely likeable. One of the many endearing aspects of Raw Spirit – which amounts to his autobiography – is the seemingly never-ending roll-call of friends that Banks seemed able to summon up at short notice to join him on some jolly jaunt to a distillery, or a night out in a restaurant, or simply to go sailing. In life, he had the gift of friendship – and in his books too. A typical Banksy opening immediately takes you into its confidence. Espedair Street: ‘Two days ago I decided to kill myself.’ The Crow Road: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ The Quarry:

Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.

This is probably because I’ve had to think about who I am and who I’m not, which is something your average person generally doesn’t have to do. Your average person has a pair of parents, or at least a mother, or at least knows roughly where they fit into all that family business in a way that I, for better or worse, don’t.

So, from the start, we have our misfit, we have our mystery, and we also have our new boon companion.

Lesson learned.