When I saw Iain, the only time I did, he seemed well and was on good form. This was about fifteen months ago and, slightly appropriately considering his black humour and liking for the creepy, in a crypt in Huddersfield. The event was to promote his latest title, Stonemouth. It was a fairly standard ‘author evening, ’ although better than some I’ve been to. Iain came across as a nice guy, with a love of the absurd and a political commitment to left of centre. He talked entertainingly for forty minutes or so and I wish I could remember what he said. Afterwards he took questions. I asked about female protagonists in his books and we agreed broadly that the musician in Canal Dreams was less rounded as a female character than the juvenile lead in Whit. I duly bought his latest book, he duly signed it and it is on my bookcase along with with most of his other books.
I have a copy of all his ‘literary’ books, many in the beautiful black and white paperback covers they were issued in by Abacus. I have some, though not all of his science fiction. This isn’t because I don’t like sci-fi. I love it and am annoyed that it is still regarded as inferior to other genres. Good novel writing uses the imagination and science fiction uses more imagination than most. Iain M. Banks’ imagination is astonishing not only in its scope but its depth. Most writers wouldn’t let themselves do what he does, even if they knew how! Oh yes, and for those who sniff at the genre, the quality of his writing is second to none.I’m sure I remember that Iain said somewhere (not in the crypt in Huddersfield), that his first claim to fame was, while studying at the University of Stirling, he spent a summer vacation wearing chainmail and rushing around in the mud beside a loch with a number of other lunatics. The explanation was, the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As holiday jobs go, that isn’t bad!
I found his very first book, The Wasp Factory, in my local public library in Stony Stratford a year or two after it came out. I took it home because the sleeve notes were intriguing. I read it with increasing astonishment that such an inventive, dark, wicked and un-literary book could get published. I’d been working my way through ‘proper’ fiction by such luminaries as Iris Murdoch, Philip Roth and that other Ian, Mr McEwan, because I felt I should. Mostly they left me not really wanting very much more.
Only Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, had really clicked. The similarities between that and the Wasp Factory are not huge, but they are there in the basic premise; children, isolated and unsupervised, making the best of things. Both are extraordinary books, ultimately I prefer ‘The Wasp Factory,’ for its black humour and bizarre essence.
I will miss the annual appearance of another of Iain’s books. His last, The Quarry, comes out on the 20th June - so next week - and for those like me who can't even wait that long , there's a tiny extract on the Guardian website - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/11/the-quarry-extract-iain-banks?INTCMP=SRCH . I’ll buy one asap. I’m just sad that nobody will be able to meet him in a crypt, or anywhere else, and get a signed copy.