It is said that humour comes in many varieties. I wasn’t keen on the variety shown in this book by Iain Banks and rather suspect it’s an acquired taste. It’s the quirky socialist type, often associated with Guardian readers, but in this book it is mingled in with drug-fuelled views that resemble ‘hippy’ views, often preferred by university students of the past. However, it wasn’t entirely that which made the book feel tiresome in parts (there were times it bored me rigid). I suspect it was when the plot veered off course and the times when unnecessary descriptions filled page after page (which could have been cut out to improve the story’s flow allowing it to be more succinct and purposeful).
The story is about a man dying from cancer – Guy – who lives with his 18 year old son, Kit, in a big rambling old house which was in a chronic state of disrepair and waiting to be demolished because the nearby quarry was edging closer towards it. Perhaps this was symbolic to represent death creeping up on Guy and indeed Banks himself, who died of cancer shortly after the book was published. Kit is the narrator of the story and possibly the saving grace of the book. He comes across as a likeable and endearing young man. It is made clear early on that he is on the autistic spectrum and has OCD, which is reflected in the way he relates to people and his eccentric behaviour around cleanliness and order. Kit does not have an easy relationship with his sick father and at times, it feels like his father bullies him by calling him horrible names and demeaning him whenever possible, although Kit is dutiful in taking care of him. Guy invites six of his friends to the house (who, in the main work in films and the media) for a long weekend. We are lead to believe that they have had regular catch-up meetings over the years since their university days together. Partly, this latest meeting is a chance to say a final goodbye to Guy who is in the last weeks/months of his life. The second reason is they all want to locate a missing film reel that contains some sexual indiscretions from their youth, fearful that if it got in the wrong hands, their respective careers could be destroyed. The weekend, apart from consuming large amounts of alcohol and drugs, concentrates on a big search of the house for the tape. Searching for the tape was very drawn out and then suddenly (and strangely) it wasn’t found in the house after all. Rather, Kit was out for a walk one morning and for some bizarre and random reason decided to climb down the quarry for a peep. Somewhere on his descent he noticed an old tape on one of its ledges. This miraculously turned out to be the missing tape that everybody desperately wanted to get their hands on. How very exciting. Not.
This last book by Banks before his untimely death received mixed reviews, some favourable (by loyal fans who I suspect had read his other books) whilst others remarked that the book seemed rushed. This was not something that I had picked up on myself – well not until I was well into the latter half (it is 374 pages in length), so no excuses for rushing, you might think – but I could see why people thought it was rushed because the last chapter is a mere four pages long. There are loose ends that needed greater tightening and a few points that needed greater clarity and explaining for them to pass more realistically. For example, who hid the videotape in the quarry, especially as it turned out to be a dud in the end that had been taped over? I can’t say that I enjoyed this book. I endured it. Maybe, in fairness to Banks, this may not be his finest piece of work given that he knew he was dying when he was writing it. I can forgive him much but I would tend to be less forgiving to his editors who should have addressed the aforementioned shortcomings which might have lead, in my opinion, to a better book that would in turn have been a more befitting epitaph to Banks.
© Declan Henry