by BJW Nashe

Iain Banks died on Sunday, June 9th, and fans of his books both in his native Scotland, and all across the globe, no doubt feel as if they’ve lost a dear friend. Some are probably shedding tears. Banks himself would have laughed at this, because above all else, he had a wicked sense of humor, especially in regard to big important topics such as life and love and death and disease. Plus he didn’t like to take himself too seriously.

When Banks announced on his web site back in April that he was gravely ill with terminal cancer, the news came as a shock.

To be struck down at age 59 seems unfair, to say the least. For this to happen to someone as energetic and inspired as Banks seems implausible and infuriating. Banks would be the first to admit that he lived life to the fullest. He didn’t exactly live fast and die young, but he lived very well, and he died far too soon. Banks loved good books and fast cars and fine whiskey. He wrote his very good books the same way he drove his very fast cars: like a bat out of hell. He even wrote an entire book about his quest to find the best damn whiskey in Scotland. I haven’t read Raw Spirit yet, but I have to assume it’s tremendous. Everything Banks wrote was brilliant.

Iain BanksThe man’s literary output was incredible: 29 books published during the past 30 years. Writer’s block? Not an issue, as far as Banks was concerned. He seemed to be incapable of running out of ideas, plots, and characters. And he seemed equally incapable of writing a dull sentence. He began one novel with the immortal line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The stories, and the crisp, free-wheeling prose, evidently just rolled right out of his brain and straight onto the page (or screen), with little or no interference. As William Gibson put it, “Banks is a phenomenon.” And what writer wouldn’t envy this phenomenon? His career, his success, and his whole lifestyle strikes many of us as close to ideal. Typically, he’d spend 4-5 months per year churning out yet another high quality work of fiction. That left the rest of the year for him to simply enjoy living the good life. No agonizing for five years at a time over a single novel. No masterpieces a decade in the making. Banks was more of a swashbuckling type who liked his literature to happen faster. Way faster. At the risk of overdoing the vehicular analogy, we can think of perfectionists like Flaubert as preferring to keep their prized automobiles parked in the garage most of the time, so they could obsessively paint and polish them, only taking them out once in a blue moon for some very special car show. Not Banks. He preferred to get his machines out on the motorway to log some high speed miles, with the sound system cranked up all the way.

I’m not sure there is an American equivalent to Banks. When asked about early influences, he liked to name-check Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s easy to see how both of those modern classics nourished Banks’s anti-authoritarian streak and his predilection for dark, apocalyptic humor. Yet compared to the sheer versatility and scope of Banks’s imagination, not to mention his high productivity, Heller and Hunter seem like slackers. Other contemporary titans of U.S. fiction such as Pynchon, DeLillo, and Ellroy might come to mind. But Banks has published twice as much as any of those writers, in even less time. And he didn’t sacrifice much in the way of quality. He certainly never reeled off anything mundane or trashy. Thankfully, he didn’t need to spend days, weeks, or months searching for le mot juste. He was better off keeping the pedal to the metal.

Wasp FactoryBanks’s first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), was a startling debut. A deranged first-person monologue by a teenage Scottish murderer who spends his time torturing animals and engaging in bizarre ritualistic behavior, The Wasp Factory builds up to a disturbing, violent climax, with a highly distinctive plot twist. In spite of, or perhaps adding to, the book’s shock value, the tale is extremely well-written, and told in a strangely funny way. The reader ends up laughing along at some truly horrible statements. Earnest commentary on how to wage war against wild rabbits, or murder children with kites, shouldn’t be funny; yet it is here, in Banks’s twisted delivery. The Wasp Factory’s appropriation and manipulation of gothic horror motifs, coupled with a thoroughly modern, cutting-edge prose style, and shot through with wild gallows humor, became Banks’s trademark throughout his subsequent body of work.

Banks’s versatility allowed his fiction to assume various shapes and sizes. The psycho-fiction debut made quite an impression. Another quite different book that also managed to shock and beguile readers was Complicity (1993), often considered to be among the best British crime thrillers of the nineties. Here Banks alternates between the first-person narrative of a gonzo journalist in Edinburgh, and a creepy, hypnotic second-person account of a series of brutal murders. The journalist is a mad bloke who enjoys weed, speed, and S & M sex binges, as a way to unwind from the rigors of his vocation. As his manic investigation proceeds, we discover that the murder victims are the worst possible examples of establishment power, greed, and corruption. Don’t they rather deserve to be punished? The reader is placed in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with the murderer’s deeds. Hence the title of the book.

Banks proved himself capable of writing diverse kinds of books, all marked by his own unique style and outlook. He wrote hilarious and tragic family sagas (The Crow’s Road, Steep Approach to Garbadale);  dark satires on corporate life (The Business), religious cults (Whit), and talk radio/media politics (Dead Air); surreal totalitarian nightmares (The Song of Stone); tales of rock and roll excess and disillusionment (Espedair Street); and high-flying speculative thrillers (Transition).

Use of WeaponsAnd that’s only half of his career. In addition to literary fiction, Banks also wrote a whole series of science fiction novels in order to explore his greatest creation of all — the world of the Culture. In the late 1980s, not content to replicate the dystopian cyberpunk style which was all the rage at the time, Banks began a vast cycle of far-flung space operas. Consider Phlebas (1987) was the first of nine subsequent sci-fi epics. The future envisioned by Banks in these Culture novels – though not exactly utopian, and certainly not without peril – is a quantum leap forward for us, a clear progression light years ahead of our current situation, which seems dim-witted by comparison, no more than a kind of “dark ages.” The world of the Culture is marked by huge advances in science, technology, and consciousness. Sure, there is plenty of politics, intrigue, and warfare. But these plot strands are fully immersed in a world featuring inter-galactic space travel, artificial intelligence, post-human life forms, post-scarcity economics, and a plethora of weird sex and drugs. Use of Weapons (1990), considered by many to be the best novel Banks wrote in any genre, makes canny use of a dual narrative structure — with one story moving forward, and the other moving backward, in time — with so much action delivered in either direction that readers are nearly overwhelmed.

The BridgeBanks’s own personal favorite among his various books was, perhaps tellingly, his most risky and overtly experimental novel, The Bridge (1986). This fantastic work pursues three separate, but thematically linked story-lines delivered by three different narrators, one of whom is lying in a coma, hallucinating his way through a very bizarre kind of post-industrial Kafkaesque nightmare. The effects range from horrifying to hilarious. I think Banks was most proud of this one because here, more than anywhere else, he achieves what many of us consider to be impossible. Here he is able to present an intellectually challenging postmodern extravaganza — a thoroughgoing exploration of language, identity, and politics — that still succeeds as a soulful, engaging, and adventurous story. Banks takes a long strange trip deep into the laboratory of fiction, yet never succumbs to the dry linguistic games or tedious navel-gazing that plagues so much experimental fiction. In The Bridge, Banks uses Joycean skills to produce Stephen King thrills and chills. And that’s no small feat, which probably required more hard work than even the great space operas.

But Banks’s books never feel like hard work. They are always effortlessly thrilling, full of weird events and fascinating people and stimulating ideas. No wonder he hardly ever had to endure bad reviews. You have to go pretty far out on a limb to find anything to critique. If anything, it’s Banks’s politics that occasionally gets under someone’s skin. Banks was an unapologetic man of the left. He thought the nuclear arms race was insane, and he said so. He thought Thatcher’s policies (and Reagan’s and Bush I’s and Bush II’s) were disastrous, and he said so. He thought the “War on Terror” was a load of shite, and he said so. He thought the “virtual policies” of Tony Blair’s New Labour were bollocks, and he said so, loud and clear. But Banks was an artist first and foremost. Writing good books was the first item on the agenda. Politics enters the picture at times in a natural, often casual manner, simply in order to keep things real, as they say — or keep things surreal, in the case of Banks. One gets the sense that for Banks, being apolitical is absurd, as ridiculous as being asexual. It’s all a necessary part of being human, and being an artist.

Even the announcement of his illness was a Banksian work of art, delivered with all of his trademark wit, intelligence, and humility. “I am officially Very Poorly,” he stated, then went on to describe the painful diagnosis point blank, telling us that he probably had no more than a few months left to live, and that he had asked his girlfriend Adele to do him “the honor of becoming  his widow” by marrying him, before it was too late. He claimed they would soon be off on a honeymoon… before it was too late.

Banks also told us that his new book, The Quarry, was almost complete, and that it would be his last. He was rushing to put the finishing touches on it… before it was too late. He did finish the book (of course), and it’s all set for an early release — just a matter of days now. The initial reviews are glowing with praise. Fortunately for us, it’s not too late to keep enjoying all of the great literature the man has left us with his passing.

Iain Banks is dead… Long live Iain Banks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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