Today, Iain Banks announced that he is terminally ill. Several articles about what an imaginative and talented writer (and by all accounts, a smashing guy) he is have already appeared online, and countless more will doubtless follow, but shouting into the void or not, I felt it would be wrong not to say something about how much his writing has given me.
My first encounter with his work was eleven years ago when The Bridge popped up on my university reading list. I knew who he was, and I recognised those black and white book covers, but for whatever reason, I had never picked any of his books up before. The Bridge, for want of a better term, was a revelation. I hadn’t read anything like it before. It was an absolute labyrinth of ideas, different voices weaving in and out of each other’s stories and a conceit that, once understood, blows the whole thing open. The irregular beeping on the phone, the endless bridge that may circle the globe, Dissy Pitton’s, the bar where the furniture hangs on chains from the ceiling: it’s dizzyingly rich in memorable images. It’s not so much writing as it is architecture: the result is this incredible structure that you just want to keep taking in. I inhaled it first time round, and can’t count the number of times I have re-read it since.
I gorged on his back catalogue, and have eagerly awaited every subsequent book (his astoundingly prolific output means that he has pretty much written a book a year since the year after I was born), falling in love with the playfulness and seriousness of his craft. It’s a unique voice, but one that is extremely versatile. That the same writer conjured the wide-eyed naivety of Isis in Whit and the grizzly, gory nastiness of Complicity is difficult to believe, and yet makes perfect sense. And then you have The Crow Road: often cited as having one of the best opening lines in literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), it wraps three generations up in one web of jealousy and inadequacy which is both tremendously sad and somehow humorous. The TV adaptation with Joe McFadden, Peter Capaldi, Bill Paterson and a questionable denim shirt dress is also well worth investigation.
It’s the way he plays with time that I’ve always enjoyed. Many of his books don’t have a linear structure, a constant concealing and revealing which is difficult to resist. Hell, for most of The Bridge, you don’t even know who the protagonist is. There is an unmistakable Scottishness too, but it’s never tokenistic: it’s a genuine part of the characters, and they happen to be Scottish rather than it being their defining trait. After years of reading fiercely Scottish writing at school and university, it was hugely refreshing, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I found it genuinely inspiring. There is an incredible sense of possibility throughout his work. Plus he swears a lot. Like I said, a genuine voice.
The release of his next book, The Quarry, has been moved forward so that he has ‘a better chance of being around to when it hits the shelves‘, so we have one last new work to enjoy, but it’s little comfort. We are losing an incredible talent, and if there is any solace to be found it’s that his brilliant, bafflingly diverse works will remain.