Walking on Glass by Iain Banks
Well…this is a strange one. Iain Banks’ second novel, Walking on Glass, is not quite as well regarded as some of his others, but I really liked it. Banks had a rare talent for vastly varying styles; he was capable of big, imaginative ideas but also rreveled in the dirty and the grotty, the sordid and the nasty. Published before his first sci-fi novel as Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas, we see Banks begin to flirt with the big imaginative ideas in a novel which feels like a crossover between the Banks’ with and without the M.
Walking on Glass follows three storylines. First is Graham Park, a young man who is hopelessly in love with the enigmatic Sara Ffitch. Second we have Steven Grout, who is beset by paranoid delusions that he is an alien General of an intergalactic war banished to Earth by his enemies. The final and most interesting storyline follows Quiss who, along with Ajayi, has been banished into a mysterious ramshackle castle, forced to play obscure and impossible games until he can solve the riddle ‘what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’ The three seemingly disparate stories eventually tie together in a bewitching and unpredictable fashion.
I’ll mention the weakness of Walking on Glass first; if this novel has any kind of meaningful message, and it does feel as if there is one straining to get out, it’s not particularly well conveyed. The slight hollowness to the book may be the cause of its less than rapturous reception, but if you just relax and enjoy the story Walking on Glass becomes much more palatable. Although the Quiss storyline is the most immediately interesting, with more than a little Mervyn Peake thrown in, all three hold interest. The connections between them are slight and insubstantial, but taken as three separate novellas I enjoyed all of them. In earlier moments this book seemed tame by Banks’ standards, but it isn’t too long until the grim edge of cheerful horror creeps in.
All three are well written, but it’s the description of the Gormenghast-esque castle that will stick in my mind. Banks wears his influences on his sleeve and makes no effort to hide them, but he also creates something which feels unique enough to make its own impact. Banks suffuses his setting with a palpable sense of despair and ennui and following Quiss as he prowls around the castle was, for me, the chief pleasure of this novel.
Although the characters themselves aren’t among his most memorable, Banks does a wonderful job at articulating the neuroses and darkness which lure in the back of the human mind, particularly when in a state of shock. More than once I was left feeling deeply uncomfortable by the articulation of mental processes than I recognise in myself. I’m normally not a fan of lengthy descriptions of characters’ mental states, preferring a showing not telling approach, but Banks does it just so damn well!
Walking on Glass is far from my favourite Banks novel, but it’s definitely not my least either. I’m rationing Banks, reading a couple a year because when they’re done they’re done. I’m looking forward to seeing whatever strange and twisted world Banks transfers me to next.