Little, Brown, 2013, 326 p.
Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding its completion I was a bit reluctant to start reading this book. What if I didn’t like it? What if Banks’s illness made the subject matter just too uncomfortable? What if it had led him to rush things and take his eye understandably off the ball? Happily, none of these fears was realised.
Kit is in his late teens and a compulsive-obsessive with more than a touch of Asperger’s syndrome encapsulated by rituals. To dissolve sugar in his tea he stirs alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise in diminishing numbers of turns; he takes a walk round the garden using a fixed (prime) number of steps, 457 to be precise, up to the wall separating the property from the quarry behind, where there is a convenient step to allow it to be viewed, then back round again.
Kit has been brought up by his father Guy and does not know who his mother is. Guy, though only in his forties, is suffering from cancer and all but bed-ridden. He calls his growths “‘Rupert’, an idea he says he got from the dead playwright Harold Pinter.”* The pair live penuriously in a decaying house and Kit is now effectively in charge of the housekeeping – and Guy.
In the early 90s Guy was one of a group of friends on the local University Media Studies course. While studying they made a series of films trying out or parodying various styles. These friends have all gone their various ways in the intervening years but kept in touch. Now they are gathering together again for the weekend as it may be the last time they can do so before Guy’s cancer kills him.
The other focus of the meeting is to seek a tape, lost somewhere in the house, of one of their films. A tape which contains scenes potentially embarrassing to their adult selves or their employers. This quest gives the title of the book its pun.
Having Kit suffer from Asperger’s is a clever move on Banks’s part as it allows examination of the various ways in which conversations, communication and manipulative behaviours are used in social situations. His closeness to Holly, one of Guy’s circle, gives us a close-up of another of Banks’s strong female characters: yet no-one in this novel is without flaw.
Guy is certainly not going “gentle into that good night.” He has acerbity aplenty, more than enough to prevent him becoming an object of sentimentality.
When Kit reflects that, “Cancer isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it even from your father. It is personalised, your own. Cancer feels like betrayal,” it is tempting to wonder if this is Banks speaking directly to us. But of course everyone’s body betrays them in the end.
This may not be vintage Banks, there is not much of a plot to be sure, but it is a fitting farewell. There is humanity here: if not all of it, enough to be going on with.
(*A pedant believes the playwright who did this was actually Dennis Potter – and also thinks the road named in the book as the M1(M) might be meant to be the A1(M).)