Writing my top ten living Scottish authors last week was a bittersweet experience – while I stand by my list, there was one name that felt conspicuous by its absence.
Forget Pride and Prejudice and Little Women – for me, the best opening line ever belongs to Iain Banks. “It was the day my grandmother exploded” sets the tone for a novel about sex, death and family. The Crow Road is an astonishing novel – ostensibly a quirky coming-of-age tale, Banks gradually peels back layers of dysfunction to reveal a tattered family and an unforgettable narrator.
He traversed genre and style – 1985’s Walking on Glass feels like an entirely different book to Espedair Street, published just two years later – and discovering his forays outside mainstream literature legitimised my early love of science fiction. It was books like Feersum Enjinn and Against a Dark Background that got sci fi’s hooks buried firmly in my reading brain, although I’ve been saving his Culture cycle for a post-scarcity rainy day.
He was well into his final novel The Quarry, about an 18-year old boy whose father is dying of cancer, when he received his own diagnosis. “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late,” he later quipped in a BBC interview. His illness and the pragmatic, darkly funny attitude he adopted towards it paradoxically led new readers to his work – although the entire literary community seemed to hold its collective breath in the months between diagnosis and death, the column inches dedicated to him and his work in the first half of 2013 felt like a celebration, a wake with the advantage that the dearly departed is not only still alive, but giving interviews. Although heartbreaking to read in retrospect, his objective reflections on his career and individual books – he never thought Canal Dreams entirely worked, and with its attempt at exploring the deeply misogynistic tropes of the political thriller, it’s certainly my least favourite – are fascinating.
He deliberately didn’t resolve the plot strands in the Culture series before he died, dismissing the possibility as “too easy”, and certainly Banks never bothered himself with the predictable or trite. His topics were dizzyingly wide ranging – The Steep Approach to Garbardale tells of the Wopuld family, who made their fortune on a board game, Complicity covers a politically-motivated serial killer and his penultimate novel, the glorious Stonemouth, follows a man returning to the eponymous town following a sex scandal.
Last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival honoured his life and works – he had been hoping to be there in person – and Nick Barley, the Festival director, gave him the perfect eulogy – “the world has lost a quiet literary giant. From The Wasp Factory onwards, Iain’s books have been at the heart of a Scottish literary renaissance that has revolutionised this country’s understanding of itself.” Banks may be gone, but his legacy remains.