Wednesday, 30 July 2003

Iain Banks: The Bridge (1986)

Edition: Futura, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1174

Of Banks' early experimentation with narrative forms, The Bridge is the most successful novel. Like Walking on Glass, it uses interlocked but seemingly disctinct narratives, and combines ideas from science fiction and literary fiction; its influences are writers like Kafka and Dick, while one of the threads is a Scottish dialect parody of pulp sword and sorcery fantasy, such as Conan the Barbarian. Rather than keeping the threads separated as he did in Walking on Glass, Banks uses common images and symbols to relate them even before what is happening becomes clear: geology (the book's sections are even named after geological eras), the body of an unconscious man in hospital, and, above all, bridges - including a more metaphorical link in one of the narratives between the lands of the living and the dead.

The narrative thread which makes the strongest impact on the reader is about an amnesiac, rescued from the water surrounding an immense bridge inhabited by thousands of people. It is this story, of the senseless bureaucracy and outlandish customs he encounters which reminds me of Kafka. A small literary connection is that this character shares his name with the Lieutenant in Catch 22 (another book about impossible bureaucracy) who rows to Norway.

In the end, there are two things which determine the success or failure of The Bridge, or any experimental fiction of this type, as a novel. The first is the reader satisfaction produced by each narrative, which is here consistently high even though the stories do not seem to have a particul purpose or direction to them. Then there is the way in which the connections are used to roll the narrative together in the end, and this is also quite well done though I wouldn't give it full marks (it seems rather unimaginative for a writer of Banks' gifts). The third aspect, which I don't think is quite so successful, is the justification for splitting the narrative up in the first place. Perhaps more could have been put at the end to make this clearer as the stories are brought together. (It is easy enough to work out what is going on, but it would be more satisfying if the reader could see more about what each thread means in the context of the whole.)

In many experimental novels, the only interesting thing is the ingenuity of the idea being tried out, whether it is the form of narrative, an unusual point of view, the novel's structure, or whatever. Compared to more traditional literature, which has centuries of reader familiarity with its conventions, they can be hard to read and provide little reward for the effort required. The Bridge is not like that, even if it isn't completely successful; it is a fascinating and enjoyable novel.

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