I wrote one of my undergrad dissertations on the works of Iain Banks. I remember my coursemates and I being summoned, one-by-one, to the office of our Director of Studies (“DoS”) to announce our preferred subjects (I think the remit we were given was ‘any writer 1850-the present’, or something similarly broad), so that he could attempt to find a suitable supervisor for each of us. His office was situated at the very top of the college, and only accessible via a winding and mountainously steep staircase that rendered the climber a red-faced, gasping and achy-legged mess requiring several minutes of composure time upon reaching the summit. Some of us had a theory that this staircase was deliberately contrived to give the waiting supervisor an advantage of physical and mental collectedness over the student; to make our inevitable academic dressing-downs all the more humiliating.
Anyway, I scaled the stairs, knocked on his door, and proudly announced that I’d like to write my thesis on the novels of Iain Banks. “Have you ever read him?”, I asked. “No”, he responded, with a tone that suggested a subtextual “of course not”. I knew wanting to write about Banks was a bit, umm, progressive (the rest of my coursemates had chosen authors or poets who were significantly more canonical, and significantly more dead; and that’s how my uni seemed to like it), but I stuck to my guns. I thought I had a good idea for a topic (I didn’t: it was something ill-conceived and ill-defined about Scottishness, Science Fiction and Freudianism; but hey, I was, like, 19: it felt a solid plan at the time), and eventually he agreed that I could do it, and told me that he’d start looking for an appropriate supervisor.
He couldn’t find one. It seemed that despite the university’s staggering array of teaching academics with all their myriad specialities, finding anyone qualified to supervise a dissertation on Iain Banks was an impossible task. I was summoned (again) to my DoS’s top-of-college office, and asked if I’d like to reconsider my subject. No: I was adamant: I really wanted to write about Iain Banks. Publicly this was because I had great confidence in my ideas, but privately I was entertaining some nebulous and juvenile notion that I was somehow sticking it to the Cambridge establishment by writing about SF instead of, you know, Keats or whatever. After all, I’d been stopped short and told to “change the subject” when I mentioned Science Fiction in my application interview, so I felt I had something to prove.
A coupla weeks later (and just before the find-a-supervisor deadline), I received an e-mail informing me that a tutor had, indeed, been discovered: a post-graduate PhD student writing a doctorate on landmines in modernist poetry (I shit you not). It wasn’t really what I’d been hoping for, but what the hey?, I corresponded with him by e-mail, and eventually took a bus to the outskirts of the city for my first supervision. In his house.
Being a student himself, you see, he had no teaching rooms of his own. His house was an innocuous terrace in one of those packed-like-sardines rows that seems to contain more houses than should reasonably be expected, or should be possible. I knocked; he opened the door; and with a delighted “Tom!” (I think I was one of his first ever supervisees) he attempted to give me a high five. To say that this was an unusual and unexpected form of greeting from a supervisor would be somewhat of an understatement. He was aloof and laid-back, constantly leaning-back and constantly grinning. The house was tiny, untidy, and the walls obscured by floor-to-ceiling towers of creasy-spined paperbacks. I thought that all of this was awesome; but I was naïve and anxious (well, more so…). It’s obvious to me now that this guy was a massive stoner, and probably hung-over during each of our meetings.
But the worst part was: he knew fuck-all about Iain Banks. I mean, he’d read (some of) the books (a long time ago); but in a casual capacity, and not with any academic or critical rigour. He’d probably seen my proposed dissertation on whatever list gets sent around the university when supervisors are being sought and thought he could make an easy few hundred quid by spending a term teaching an undergrad who doesn’t know any better. Ideally in this situation you’d request a change of supervisor, but given how long it took just to find this guy, that wasn’t really an option.
So, for the next few months, I essentially self-taught, with minimal input from my supervisor. The writing process was frustrating, and the end result was a lack-lustre and directionless thesis that didn’t achieve a particularly successful mark. But despite all of these extenuating circumstances, the months I spent submerged in the novels of Iain Banks remain one the happiest, most significant reading periods of my life.
I think it’s fair to say that I gorged on his fiction. I read most of his books twice, and several (The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, The Player of Games) three or four times. This was partly under the pretence of academic thoroughness, but the truth is I loved his books so much that I was even re-reading the ones that had no bearing whatsoever on my dissertation. The Crow Road was a bildungsroman like I’d never read before; the tripartite narrative structure of The Bridge and its attendant deconstruction of the three parts of the Freudian psyche blew my mind. The Wasp Factory’s stylistic convergence of neo-gothic imagery with hysterical realism is something I’ve not encountered anywhere else. The way Inversions suggests a place within his wider SF narrative ‘The Culture’ without actually name-checking it is a prominent example of the kinds of tricksy intertextual jokes Banks implanted into all of his work. And I’ll never forget sitting in my university room at 3am and crying as I read the most tragic passages of Espedair Street.
Iain Banks died last week. This has clobbered me in a way that I’ve never been clobbered by the death of a person I don’t actually know. Banks’ novels bore a significant influence on my future reading tastes (The Culture was my first ever experience of “real” Science Fiction), and changed my approach to fiction in the way that only those books you read when you’re young and free of all cynicism can actually do. His humanism, humour, liberalism, creativity, disregard for binaries and fearless devotion to the real spectrum-complexity of things has become the yardstick against which I judge so much of what I read. It seems grossly, cosmically unfair that he died when he did, and so soon after announcing that he still had a year left.
So; that’s the story of my immersion into his books. Please share your own anecdotes/favourite bits/Banks-based thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for everything, Iain. I’m off to read The Crow Road. Again.