On Losing Iain Banks

(First published in Three Monkeys Online)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is the blurb on the back of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. They are the first words of his I ever read and, at the age of thirteen, I knew I had to continue reading. Nothing was going to stop me. To say it was an eye opener is a bit of an understatement, but I loved it. The plot and characters were sick, twisted, vivid and oh so human behind it all. I’ve read it several times since and have the audiobook on my ipod for nights when I can’t sleep.

Iain Banks is a Scottish author and The Wasp Factory is his first book, published in 1984. He publishes science fiction as Iain M. Banks and (for lack of a better word) mainstream fiction without the ‘M.’ To this day when people ask me what my favourite book is I barely hesitate before I reply “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.” While my love for the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and a meagre handful of others verges on the obsessive Use of Weapons sticks out. It is the only book, that when I finished reading it, I wrote a letter to the author. I never worked up the guts to send that letter but a few years later it was the first book I ever got signed by the author. I frequently go back and read the first few pages and they never lose their impact:

‘Tell me, what is happiness?’
‘Happiness? Happiness … is to wake up, on a bright spring morning, after an exhausting first night spent with a beautiful … passionate … multi-murderess.’
‘… Shit, is that all?’

This is followed by gorgeous descriptions of a wine glass with veins of light snaking through it and when I read it I’m breathless and excited and ready to write my own fiction just to attempt to reach that level of brilliance.

I’ve always preferred his science fiction to his mainstream fiction. His aliens are more original than any I’ve ever read about before, more than just a re-skinned human. His ‘Culture’ books were so detailed and unique that on more than one occasion in college I toyed with the idea of writing essays about them. Somehow I could never quite convince my lecturers that this was a good move.

The State of the Art is what first got me into short stories. I was quite snobby about them before, thinking they were truncated novels or mere ‘practice’ for aspiring novelists. But the stories Descendent and Road of Skulls were so powerful that I immediately changed my opinion and began my own stuttering attempts at the deceptively complex genre he had opened my eyes to. His mainstream works can never be considered mundane or normal either. They are laced with the surreal and the intensity that marks his fiction. The Bridge is another novel whose opening pages I frequently return to when I’m feeling fatigued by this writing lark. I can’t say anything more about it without spoiling it but if sci-fi isn’t your thing, or if your stomach is a bit too weak for The Wasp Factory, go read The Bridge.

Only a few days ago, on the third of April, Iain Banks announced that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the gallbladder and likely has less than a year to live. His novel Quarry will be his last. He has not ruled out chemotherapy to extend his life but it seems unlikely that he will. In his usual dark humour he has asked his partner to become his widow and the two are on their honeymoon now. Well wishers can leave messages for him on his website. I still can’t quite process this information. Even though I only met him for one brief, wonderfully surreal moment, I feel like I know him. I get this way about a lot of authors and I imagine it must be the same way other people feel about actors or pop singers they obsess over. But after reading so much of his work over the years, it’s had such a big influence on me that I can’t help but feel like someone close to me is slipping away.

No author has challenged my perceptions of writing as much as Iain Banks. From an early age he cemented my belief that the literary fiction VS genre fiction divide is superficial at best. He writes across genres and all his books carry the same intensity, the same oddness and the same detail that marks all his work.

I was already aware that certain books were not considered ‘proper’ to read or as worthwhile as others. Some friends in school laughed at me when I read Terry Pratchett, they said the covers were babyish. I was a swot so many eyebrows were raised when I sat down the back of the class with copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy instead of Penguin’s classics. My Granny was forever buying me Jane Austen novels. I admit that I sometimes felt ashamed and embarrassed about reading these kinds of books but try as I might I still find Jane Austen incredibly tedious. I sat an exam on her in college without ever finishing one of her books (and passed quite comfortably). Nothing ever stuck with me as much as speculative fiction. Iain Banks was the first author who proved to me unequivocally that there need be no gap between genre and literary. Each can be as fun and as deep as the other. Since then I’ve never been ashamed of liking something, even things traditionally perceived as low culture. At the same time I don’t disdain literary fiction as being pompous and plotless. I enjoy them both and I’m glad I encountered Banks’ fiction at such a young age.

One of the things that first endeared him to me were the critics’ quotes he chose to include in the opening pages of The Wasp Factory:

‘Perhaps it’s all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish’ – The Times

‘A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn… bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty’ – Sunday Express

‘No masterpiece and one of the most disagreeable pieces of reading that has come my way in quite a while… Enjoy it I did not’ – Sunday Telegraph

‘A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles horror upon horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile’ – Evening Standard

‘Read if you dare’ – Daily Express

He had the sense of humour to know that his work would be different and he embraced these reactions and kept writing anyway. There are a lot of writers I enjoy but very few I look up to. Banks is one of them and his books have been on my shelf for as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer. I don’t claim to love everything he wrote. For example Dead Air wasn’t my kind of thing and Transition had some brilliant moments and characters but, what I feel was a flawed execution of the premise. That being said, ten years from now, when someone asks me what my favourite book is I bet good money that my reply will still be “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.”