We should write more about the authors we like when they’re alive. Bothering to write about them and their books only once they’ve died is perhaps a little disingenuous. Why we can’t raise ourselves to praise reflects our blinkered selves; or perhaps we just don’t appreciate those writers out there until we suddenly realise that there’ll be no more offerings from them at all. Iain Banks has died, and I feel a need to add my voice to the posthumous account of his work.
I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s recent blog post about his relationship with Iain Banks. It reads as honest, but I wonder if Gaiman also wishes he’d written more about Banks’ writing and about him as a person when he was alive. This is an aside. What I’m most wary of here and now, as I write, is that Banks’ back catalogue won’t be getting any larger. Of course, he has his soon-to-be published last book out imminently (The Quarry, June 2013) but, barring any long-lost manuscripts, that’s it.
I certainly haven’t read as much of Banks’ work as I should and could have done. One day I’ll catch up on all of that (like I should be catching up on Kundera, Márquez, and all the other writers I’ve not become fully, fully acquainted with yet). However, what I have read of Banks has — for the most part — left me feeling extremely jealous, with certain memories, and occasionally astounded. This passage, from Descendant in his collection titled The State of the Art (1991) has remained at some level of my consciousness for many, many years:
This is our home town from before we felt the itch of wanderlust, the sticks we inhabited before we ran away from home, the cradle where we were infected with the crazy breath of the place’s vastness like a metal wind inside our love-struck heads; just stumbled on the scale of what’s around and tripped out drunk on starlike possibilities . . .
It was passages like these from Banks, and other authors who amazed me when I first found them, to inspire me to keep such treasures in notebooks specifically bought for the purpose.
For my money, and for that of many others I suspect, one of Banks’ finest works was The Crow Road (1992). That a novel can be started ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ was a young writer’s lesson in opening lines in one fell swoop (not to mention dispelling the myth held by some critics that opening with such a ‘vague pronoun’ as ‘it’ is ‘unliterary’). Crow Road impressed me with its characterisation, family bonds, and geography. The other most cited Banks offering has to be The Wasp Factory (1984). I read this, I remember, way back but it was so way back that I need to read it again. It had an affect on me, but maybe I wasn’t sufficiently developed as a reader or as a writer then to appreciate it. As is the case with praising the recently deceased, we often find we need to read such books as The Wasp Factory again and for similar reasons.
Banks’ writing, for me, wasn’t all worthy of high praise. I suppose it’s inevitable that in any body of work there are some offerings that just don’t come up to the mark. The most notable of these, in my reading of it, was A Song of Stone (1997). It just didn’t feel like Banks writing this: I laboured with it for a while, maybe half way or so, maybe a little more, but it felt like he was trying too hard. That is, maybe he was trying to show us a new Banks, a new voice, or a tangential one at least. The writing attempted the poetic but fell short.
For different reasons I also came to a bookmarked year-long pause on Transition (2009). The writing in this isn’t so stilted, but it did take a few re-starts to try to get the hang of the various chopping and changing of characters and, indeed, places in time and geography. I’m sure I’ll pick up Transition again one day and give it a couple of days of dedicated attention.
It was at some point in the mid-nineties that I dedicated attention to Walking on Glass (1985). I know this because I remember sitting in a chair reading the entire book to my then partner, whose first language was not English. If I think hard enough I can narrow this down to a more or less exact point in time. There aren’t many authors who dovetail with such personal recollections. The Bridge (1986) was another Banks book to have left its mark: the strange liminal world depicted won’t be for all readers, but it found me at the right time, I suppose.
We all have writers in our reading histories who affect us enough (through their good work and despite their not so good offerings) for us to go back to them again and again. Iain Banks was undoubtedly one of those writers for me. In appreciation of words, I shouldn’t have left it till now to say this. I should also consider all the other writers I enjoy reading too, and I should consider them and their words here and now.