Iain Banks is dying. “I am officially Very Poorly,” he wrote in a statement on his condition, before addressing its particulars. The diagnosis is cancer, an advanced stage, initially targeting the gallbladder, but moving on to the liver, and likely the pancreas and lymph nodes. He is 59 and isn’t expected to to live more than a year. It’s sad news, even on the most basic level. Fifty-nine isn’t very old, certainly not so old that all of his work is done. As a rule I’m ambivalent about Twitter, but watching the news of his diagnosis spread was remarkable. He had meant a great deal to many discerning readers. There was disbelief, and in more than one case, talk of tears. On a personal level, a feeling of sudden urgency surprised me. The only response that seemed appropriate was to read his work.
Banks was born in Scotland in 1954. Perhaps his earliest claim to fame was working as an extra for a battle scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He announced his arrival to the literary world with The Wasp Factory, his first, unforgettable book and has since shown a dozen times at least, and another dozen if we include his sci-fi work as Iain M. Banks, that the first flush of success was no fluke. Granta named him one of their best young British novelists in 1993. He wrote steadily, and had work adapted for TV and film. The Independent (UK) named The Wasp Factory one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Somehow he never caught the eye of the Booker Prize committee, not even enough to make the longlist, but that says more about the nature of literary prize-giving than the quality of his work. He remained outspoken politically, including a 2003 call for Tony Blair’s impeachment for his conduct in the run-up to the Iraq War. Since 2010, he has boycotted Israel by refusing to allow his novels to be sold there, a stance founded on Israeli policy and action toward Palestine. Banks concluded that “especially in our instantly connected world, an injustice committed against one, or against one group of people, is an injustice against all, against every one of us; a collective injury.” An admirable stance, yet none of that told me quite what I wanted to know. I also couldn’t say what was missing. I can only compare the impulse to learning all one can of a distant relative as time expires. Much is revealed, but much remains a mystery. In the case of Banks, I took the only logical step I could see to solving that mystery; I turned to his books.
Banks’s name wasn’t new to me. He was among the stacks, the ever-shifting list of who to read now, next and eventually. There was no logical need to move him to the on-deck circle – he won’t take the work he’s already done with him when he goes – but I did. I tried to finish Pages from a Cold Island (apologies to the late Fred Exley) but couldn’t stop thinking of Banks and feeling I was betraying him somehow. My shelves held The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I took up Garbadale first, if only out of fear that anything which followed The Wasp Factory might suffer by comparison.
There are moments when first encountering a writer’s work that set the tone for the relationship a reader will have. Very early in Garbadale, Fielding Wopuld visits a Scottish housing estate, in search of his cousin Alban. Banks locates him quickly, with a mix of acid wit and highly particular detail. On Fielding’s initial approach, he notes “long blocks of three- and four-storey flats covered in patchy pebble-dash spotted with poor quality graffiti. The tiny gardens at the front of the flats are just unkempt. He’s used to kempt.” He goes on to characterize the estate as “a soul-destroying spot, what a place to basically get the hell out of as soon as you can.” Before he can leave, though, Fielding has to find the building where Alban is staying. This doesn’t improve matters:
The block’s glass-and-metal door looks like people have thrown up on it and then tried to rinse the mess off by pissing all over it. This obviously didn’t work because apparently then they tried setting it on fire. The button by the scarred plastic name-plate for flat E just sort of sinks into its housing. No buzzer sounds anywhere.
The purpose of his visit is to invite Alban to a monumental gathering (it’s actually called the Extraordinary General Meeting) at the family estate, Garbadale. There they will decide, as a group, whether to sell their controlling interest in a board-and-video game company to an American corporation. The novel is rich and untidy – should any family story be otherwise? – and Banks revels in that untidiness. He gives us Alban’s teen entanglement with the love of his life, his first cousin Sophie, as well as the disclosures and bluffs leading up to the family’s meeting with the potential buyers. I found myself reading more quickly than was ideal, taking the text in great gulps and leaving quick, provisional marks in the margins, promises to return later.
None of that prepared me for The Wasp Factory. At first blush I thought of Giorgos Lanthimos’s film Dogtooth (Kyondontas) with its closed world and casual cruelty, but that lacked the charisma on display in Banks’s debut. And however puzzling the film is at times, it fails to approach the depth of the mysteries and contradictions at work in The Wasp Factory. Banks makes irresistible use of dark humor in the book – see, for instance, anecdotes about the inglorious deaths of narrator Frank Cauldhaume’s relatives – but he is also remarkably versatile. That is to say, he displays great authority on everything from elaborate scenes of animal cruelty and convoluted superstition, to unexpected moments of sensitivity. When a fire fails to catch after his rabbit massacre, Frank observes that, “the grass [is] too young and moist to catch. Not that I’d have cared if it had gone up. I considered setting the whin bushes alight, but the flowers always looked cheerful when they came out, and the bushes smelled better fresh than burned, so I didn’t.” He punctuates this aside by kicking a rabbit carcass into the nearby stream. Banks also gives Frank a set of catechisms to repeat in fraught moments, a litany which includes “my confessions, my dreams and hopes, my fears and hates.” Intentionally or not, Frank’s catechisms sound like the sort of withering self-criticism writers suffer at times:
The catechisms also tell the truth about who I am, what I want and what I feel, and it can be unsettling to hear yourself described as you have thought of yourself in your most honest and abject moods, just as it is humbling to hear what you have thought about in your most hopeful and unrealistic moments.
The Wasp Factory is a dark and troubling book, full of secrets and confusion. The faint of heart are advised away, and the stout of heart are advised to steel themselves before beginning. It is also a masterpiece, deeply creative and absolutely sui generis in its sensibility. On rare occasions, a book forces me to take a break, a day off, before reading something new. The Wasp Factory is that strong a presence, one so whole and unflinching that anything following it deserves a wide berth, lest it should be overwhelmed.
After two books by Banks in a week, I am gratified and relieved. I’ve done right by him in whatever nebulous way my mind required, and he didn’t disappoint. He’s a writer I’ll recommend, one whose books will go in boxes during moves and back onto the shelf thereafter. Still, I had to put him away. Other tasks demanded attention. Walking on Glass will wait, as will The Crow Road, which I’ve since added, and the nearly two-dozen others, including his new book, The Quarry, due in June. I’m sure I haven’t said enough to do him justice as a man or a writer, but I don’t know him well enough as either to remedy that now. I do know that, upon learning the doctor’s diagnosis, he married his girlfriend of several years. “I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honor of becoming my widow,” he wrote, “(sorry – but we find ghoulish humor helps).” He is also reading all the comments on his website, where readers can say thanks and wish him farewell. And I’m adding him to a new list, one I’ve stayed true to for years now, of writers whose work I parse out slowly, dreading the day there’s no more, though the dread is unnecessary; I can simply start again when I reach the end. Nabokov is there, and Anita Brookner. J.M. Coetzee. Junichiro Tanizaki. Something tells me Banks will fit, that his work will add a missing element, something hard to define but, once it’s familiar, also hard to do without.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.