Tuesday, 10 June 2003

Iain Banks: Walking on Glass (1988)

Edition: Macmillan, 1988
Review number: 1166

Though the prose is recognisably by the same writer, Iain Banks' second novel is very different from the first. The Wasp Factory is about psychology, particularly concerning itself with the boundary between sanity and madness and the origins of religious ritual; it is basically a straightforward first person narrative in structure. Psychology is still a part of Walking on Glass (paranoia, whether deluded or not, plays an important role), but the structure of the novel is its central feature.

Apart from the last, each of Walking on Glass' parts is divided into three sections, which seem to be independent stories. In each part, the first is about the infatuation of a young man for a beautiful and slightly strange girl he met at a party; the second is about a roadmender who believes himself to be an admiral from a galactic war imprisoned in the body of an Earthman; and the third is a combination of Mervyn Peake and Franz Kafka, in which a pair of war criminals from opposing sides in a galactic war are imprisoned in an enormous castle and forced to play impossible games until they can solve the riddle "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?"

At the beginning, of course, Banks' aim it clearly to make it as hard as possible for the reader to perceive any connection between the three narrative threads, and trying to work it out is the main pleasure of Walking on Glass, at least on first reading it. (None of the characters, for example, are likeable enough to become enjoyable acquaintances, though all are interesting.) Even though Walking on Glass is not among Banks' most successful novels (something due in part to the lack of sympathetic characters), it must be admired for its ingenuity.

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