I have not actually read any Iain Banks. I recognize that this is a problem. I just went and got the Culture books, and I’m hoping to squeeze some time in for them, but let’s be honest, there’s well over a dozen things trying to squeeze into a finite amount of media consumption time, and life’s too short to read everything. Still, The Also People was marvelous, and I really do want to look at the truck it was bought off the back of, no questions asked.
In any case, here’s the thing that struck me. And, I mean, I know why it struck me. Between having lived through an absolutely searing bereavement a few years ago after the fabled “worst 48 hours ever” in which my wife left me and my father had a massive stroke and being now married to an oncology nurse who previously worked at a hospice, the fact that death is a thing that happens is something I am largely speaking intimately aware of. Things have endings. Sometimes the ending is far away, and other times it’s close, but things end. Change happens. Mercury has its price.
And so what struck me about Banks was the way in which he announced his terminal cancer. The line in the announcement about asking his wife to do him the honor of being his widow. The bit in his last interview where he notes that he was 87,000 words into his last book, which features a main character dying of cancer, when he got his diagnosis, and remarked, “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is such a bad idea.”
My wife and I have, shall we say, similar senses of humor. A ways into our first date, realizing that things were going well, but also that she was a hospice nurse, I made one of the higher risk decisions of my single life. See, I really liked her. She was cute and funny and a Doctor Who fan and we were just hitting it off. But she was a hospice nurse. Which, I mean, what a job. But it struck me that there were two things that could mean. One was that she was going to be very… serious. And I have a love of dark humor that would put Robert Holmes to shame. The other was that she was the sort of person who had developed a similar sense of humor to deal with that life.
And I figured I was going to have to know, so I told her the absolutely grimmest and bleakest funny story in my family’s history; a story so massively and sickly wrong that it is not so much “told” within my family as whispered about in hushed and awe-struck tones. It is not one I can repeat here – even putting it in some future work of fiction would be too much. It is an honest story about death, and those are too revealing and too luridly and horribly true stories to actually tell. Like sex, we require pornographies of death to pretend that the real thing does not exist.
But it is the sort of story that comes out in life. And given what her job was, she was either going to think it hilarious or she was going to be mortified and storm out. Because either you learn to live in the world where everybody’s life ends horribly, one way or another, and most of us die slowly and wetly and awfully, or you lie and tell yourself you live in a different world.
And She cracked up, and has been with me ever since. So when I saw a great Scottish writer dying hilariously of cancer the first thing I did was tell her. Because I knew she’d see in that so perfectly bleak joke about doing your research too late somebody who had done the truly unmentionable in our world and told a real story about death.
So let’s talk about that death.
Iain Banks: fifty-nine years, twelve classic science fiction books, and fifteen equally beloved “literary” books. Plus one about scotch. He got paid to drive around Scotland, drink Scotch, and write a discursive book about his feelings. That, right there, is the marker of a brilliant career. And he got to control his own ending and face it on his own terms. No, he didn’t get to pick the schedule for his ending, but none of us do.
But he got to face it with grace. He got to frame his goodbye as he wanted to. And he had a life full of making wonderful things.
There was a staff meeting at my wife’s hospital after her floor had a really hard death – someone only twenty-seven, who had been on and off the ward throughout her entire illness. It was brutal on everyone, and they had a meeting, and one of the things they talked about was the set of emotions that come up as caregivers. And at the end my wife piped up and suggested one final emotion: peace. And that emotion, more than anything, is what strikes me about Iain Banks.
I think I’m going to really enjoy his books.