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.