I was saddened yesterday by the terrible news that Iain Banks, one of my favourite authors, is suffering with terminal cancer. I enjoy his sci-fi novels (written as Iain M. Banks), but his literary fiction in particular has been a huge influence on my reading and my writing.
Three books have stuck with me above all others: Banks’ debut novel The Wasp Factory was the first of his works that I read, and it completely blew me away. Isolated and domestic but universal and thrilling, I think it was probably the first work of contemporary literary fiction I really tackled, and it paved the way for the next decade of my reading. Short and nasty, The Wasp Factory is also incredibly sad. The images in the final pages are impossibly moving. I remember being astonished that the publishers juxtaposed negative reviews – and there were plenty – alongside positive reviews. It was a gigantic two fingers raised to the establishment. Who gets to decide what constitutes literature? It was a sword in the dirt, a statement of intent: HERE I AM.
As much as I love Whit, The Crow Road, Excession, Use of Weapons, Consider Phlebas or Transition, the other two novels which really stand out for me are Walking on Glass and The Bridge. Their intricate layers of narrative, meaning and genre opened my eyes to what literature was capable of. The Bridge maps out loneliness as well as any other novel I’ve read, while Walking on Glass simultaneously combines existential nothingness with predetermined destiny.
It’s sad to think that forthcoming novel The Quarry will also be his last. More than anything else, Banks is a fantastic read, and – like Roberto Bolano, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Denis Johnson, Sarah Waters or Jasper Fforde – I return to his books time and time again. There is nothing pompous or pretentious about his work, and like all great writers, he ultimately delivers great stories above all else. I’ve loaned his novels out to friends over the years, and I’m now missing many of my favourites; this sad news makes me want to track them down and read them again.