Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sad news about Iain Banks

The news that Iain Banks has cancer and has possibly less than year to live is very sad. He's older than I realised - 59 - but still, its no age. He was a writer you expected to carry on forever, mixing his mainstream and SF novels for another twenty years or more; but now it looks like "The Quarry" will be his last. I first encountered Banks, as many did, with "The Wasp Factory." I was at the airport on the way to Australia in 1985 and saw the arresting cover and read the blurb on the back and was instantly intrigued. I bought the novel and read it over the coming weeks on the other side of the world.

It remains a captivating book, a modern "Lord of the Flies", but uniquely speaking to my own generation. I wouldn't have guessed that Banks was a decade and a half older than me, as "The Wasp Factory" despite its Scottish island setting resonated strongly with me. I devoured his next few novels, only "Canal Dreams" being a bit of a duffer, and two in particular, the family saga "The Crow Road" and the rock and roll story "Espedair Street" joining that debut in my list of favourites. Its fair to say I liled Banks most when he was at his most macabre and most Scottish. Also, whilst most of his contemporaries seemed to write about a Britain I hardly recognised, his characters drank and smoke and listened to the Pixies. He always was a rock and roll novelist at heart - and there haven't been many of those in English letters. If I grew out of him after the mid-90s, it was perhaps my changing tastes rather than anything else. I've never read his much admired SF books, but perhaps I will find the time at some point.

Banks always seemed to be one of our own, a provincial novelist who had worldwide acclaim and vaulting ambition, and a world away from literary London. I can't be the only writer who aspired more to Banks than to Amis and his ilk. He's had a bit of acclaim over the years, but from interviews I've read with him, he's always been far more interested in a dialogue with his readership than fancy gongs. Outside of the SF he's not a genre writer but he's always written books that have a certain noirish brio, and have felt of the real world even when they are flights of fancy like "The Bridge".

So here's a writer I've followed since the start saying his last farewells, and it seems that as well as being a tragedy for his friends and family its a tragedy for literature. I can only hope his remaining time is as good as it can be.

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