by Iain Banks
352 pages, Abacus
Review by Pat Black
Bit of blasphemy, now.
Walking On Glass is Iain Banks’ second novel, published a year after the neo-gothic shock of The Wasp Factory. It must have come as a disappointment to many people intrigued by what the young Scots author would do next.
It tells three different stories. First, there’s art student Graham Park, who is in love with the exciting, enigmatic Sarah ffitch (not a typo) after meeting her at a party.
Then there’s Steven Grout, a labourer suffering from paranoid delusions that he is an admiral in an intergalactic, interdimensional war, marooned on earth. He needs to escape from his earthly confines, and must somehow endure the tedium of life on this planet until then – but how?
Finally, we follow Quist and Ajayi, who actually are two admirals from an intergalactic war, imprisoned in a strange, fantasy-land castle where they are set an old philosophical problem: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
As you might suppose, the three stories interlink in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
I’m a big fan of Iain Banks, but I’ll say this early on: this isn’t a very good novel. I’m glad I didn’t read this one first; I might never have gone back. I wonder what his publishers thought? Banks himself seemed apologetic in later interviews.
The big problem is that the three individual stories just aren’t very interesting. No faulting the prose, just the lack of events. Graham Park is young and naïve, dawdling through what he thinks is a love affair with Sarah, his head in the stratosphere. There is a rival on the scene – divorced Sarah’s sometime lover, the hulking biker Bob Stock. But he’s a presence in the background, something to occupy Graham’s mind as interest becomes obsession.
More interesting to me was Richard Slater, Graham’s gay friend. Slater’s “great ideas for stories” were the first thing to get me fully engaged in the book. In the bizarre plots and pay-offs Slater outlines to a bored and sometimes exasperated Graham – including an overt nod to Douglas Adams – this, finally, was the Iain Banks I know.
But by and large this segment of the story is that very strange thing: a love affair without any sex. I was frustrated. Perhaps I am a dirtier devil than I thought.
Steven Grout was even more difficult to listen to, and in fact almost drove me into the arms of Muriel Spark. Grout’s imaginings are perhaps clinically insane – his intergalactic enemies are everywhere and nowhere; he is blasted by microwave weapons, and the hubcaps from cars seek to destroy him with death rays. It was difficult to listen to after a while. This was a hat-tip to realism, as it replicated the sensation of paranoia which we’re all familiar with, but it was a curious ordeal for me. Perhaps Banks essayed paranoia too successfully.
Worse than his invisible foes, Grout runs up against the world of bureaucracy, as he is sacked from his job and then seeks to draw unemployment benefit. There are forms to fill in, details to be attended to, nosey landladies to be lied to and smirking ingrates with clipboards to be endured. Grout is fuming, all the time, a ticking bomb, and also makes some absolutely hopeless mistakes in his day-to-day life which had me slapping my forehead. When he started being careless with his pay-off from his job, it was as unbearable as his psychic warfare with his intergalactic jailers.
Topping off this awkward triptych is the story of Quist, imprisoned in his castle with Ajayi. The castle is very well described by Banks, and that’s probably the biggest problem with this section. The outline of the Heath Robinson-esque architecture and its strange mechanics and engineering in the bowels of the castle were probably significant to the story and the overall themes of the book, but by god I found it dull. If you’re excited by the idea of bridges and thought Meccano was a great toy for a kid, then read on, and be glad. Anyone else – beware.
Quist and Ajayi are tormented by the custodians and guards of the castle, led by the sarcastic red crow, a talking bird. The pair are imprisoned for deadly mistakes they made in the past, and although they are sci-fi characters, the castle has a fantasy/fairytale style. The dwarfish servants are abused and tortured by Quist, a sour old boor who can’t get the central problem they must solve right – but to no avail.
The stories do interlink, and I guess there are extra marks on show for anyone looking for the more subtle parallels and callbacks. Stacks of books is one; the sheer tedium of bureaucracy is another.
There’s no faulting Banks’ prose, and he illustrates Graham’s infatuation with Sarah ffitch as beautifully as he ever did. The small details and tiny torments of a young man in love were exquisite – the feeling, gone all too soon, that the birds sing just for him.
Slater, always in the background, is a mischievous presence rooted in 1980s student politics but quite endearing with it (like Banks forever was). He enhances the plot as best he can.
One thing I will say about this part is that Banks captures sexual naivety very well. You know that Graham is heading for trouble from the first moment he meets Sarah – and that in his first rush of adult love, he may be as delusional as Steven Grout. Again, the longer this went on, the more painful it was to read. We have probably all been there. Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.
By the time the glass shatters and all secrets are revealed, the book does shift gears, but all too late. I remember thinking: well, this is a strange book for one big reason - there’s none of Banks’ usual pervy preoccupations with incest, for a start.
There are other Banks tells, such as a fascination with games of every kind, whether played on boards, computers or battlefields. And then there’s the idea of infidelity as a weapon – the realisation that the object of one character’s affection has been f*cking someone else, and then the humiliation and mockery that follows the shock of realisation.
It’s a nasty thing to do and to take pleasure in. If it happened once or twice in Banks’ work, I could shrug it off. But it happens quite a lot. I wonder what Banks got out of it. Same with the incest – Banks, an only child, we should note, has put this in quite a few of his books. The Crow Road, Use of Weapons and even right at the end, with The Quarry. That’s just off the top of my head, and giving the benefit of the doubt to the air of sexual obsession that haunts The Wasp Factory as Frank’s terrible secret is revealed.
Maybe Banks was just trying to shock us – he enjoyed doing that, all of his days.
In summary, Walking On Glass is possibly the author’s worst out of the ones I’ve read so far, and definitely one to avoid if you’re thinking of giving Banks a try.
I can’t decide if it’s too clever for its own good, or nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. In sum, that’s nowhere near a recommendation.