Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, April 21, 2014

1985: Walking on Glass (Banks, Iain)

Layers and parallelism of influence tantalize the reader (5/5)

I’m no stranger to the works of Iain Banks: I’ve read six of his fiction novels and all of his science fiction, all totaling twenty books. All of his books (literally, all of them) linger in my mind with unique storytelling. Though I love them all, I’ve only reread The Algebraist (2004) and The State of the Art (1989). Again, though I love them all, they are difficult for me to synopsize, as if they are beyond the reach of my circumspection. At the end of 2012, I read Walking on Glass and began to write a review for the book when my laptop crashed. It took me a year to get around to fixing the bugger and, lo and behold, all the files were intact. So, I knew I had to reread this tantalizing piece of fiction.

Walking on Glass sounds quirky enough, speculative enough to warrant the purchase and accolade of being chosen for my 100th book of 2012. When opening an Iain Banks novel, I have never known disappointment… slight dismay or mild boredom, yes, but never discontent. Walking on Glass is the first novel of Banks to really push my mental envelope toward grasping the linkages between the three stories. Only three stories, you may guffaw, but the fictional distance and hazy parallelisms throw the reader for a loop. Bear with it, absorb it, and try to relish the experience of being challenged… something which 99% of today’s fiction has forgotten to do.

Rear cover synopsis:
”Graham Park is in love. But Sara Ffitch [sic] is an enigma to him, a creature of almost perverse mystery. Steven Grout is paranoid—and with justice. He knows that They are out to get him. They are. Quiss, insecure in his fabulous if ramshackle castle, is forced to play interminable impossible games. The solution to the oldest of all paradoxical riddles will release him. But he must find an answer before he knows the question.

Park, Grout, Quiss—no trio could be further apart. But their separate courses are set for collision…”


Story #1:
Graham has been steeping in the tepid water of love for weeks, fuzzily reminiscing of his first encounter with the intoxicatingly beautiful Sara ffitch (“not one big ‘f’; two little ones” [97]), all thanks to his flamboyantly gay friend Slater. Though not a typical romantic first meeting, Graham tolerates her sour disposition after her recent separation from her husband. Weeks go by and still he swims in the syrupy sea of expectation with the lovely lass of Sara. Walks along the canal, visits to the zoo, loving confessions over the phone—Graham plays the waiting game for her love and attention. She’s not forthcoming with beginning a new relationship, though she still sees and speaks of her biker fling named Stock. Lightly laden with jealousy of Stock, Graham looks forward to later today when he is allowed to actually entire the home of the hesitant vixen.

Story #2:
Amid the persecuting eyes of his sewer facilities managers and under the duress of their hidden microwave beams which cause him to sweat and panic, Steven Grout does the unexpected and quits his job. Fearing their reprisal, Steven makes a break for it and heads to the unemployment office, where he greets the receptionist and officer with a cynical degree of disdain because they, too, train their microwave beams on him! Yet to qualify for unemployment because of their sinister planning (or because of his voluntary leaving), Steven leaves the office dodging hubcap laser beams, sugaring gas tanks, avoiding his droning impassable landlady, and sulking with his well-earned money and a local drunk from the bar. A man tolerating misfortune leads an insufferable life.

Story #3:
In a castle made of illegible blocks of books, Quiss is subjected to spend his days away from the Therapeutic Wars for his travesties while attempting to solve two things: the impossible complexities of nonsense games and the nebulous answer to the question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?” Thousands of days are spent learning the rules and playing one-dimensional chess, open-plan go, spotless dominoes, and Chinese scrabble with his only partner in the castle—Ajayi—but his main focus is exploring the depths of the castle and torturing information out of the cherubic masked servants. Being imprisoned angers Quiss, yet several of his discoveries cause him to question his reality and the reason why he’s being used, punished, and borderline tortured.


I love the respective quotes by The Times and Observer: “A feast of horrors, variously spiced with incest, conspiracy, and cheerful descriptions of torture… fine writing” and “Inexorably powerful… sinister manipulations and magnetic ambiguities”. I usually disregard any sort of benediction from other authors or reviewers on a book’s cover, but these two hit the nail on the head, especially the bit about “magnetic ambiguities”.

It’s exactly these “magnetic ambiguities” which tantalized me endlessly. Even when writing this review, bursts of additional insight are ricocheting off my previous ideas, creating echoes of reinforcing understanding. Though the book’s own synopsis says the three plot lines are “set for collision”, the actual degree of crossover/influence/relevance/analogy depends on the reader’s perspective: (1) superficial, (2) insightful and (3) metaphorical.

1. Superficial. The overlapping of the plots of Graham and Grout is nearly singular, but the resulting influence Grout has on Graham’s life is dramatic; what could have been emotionally chaotic turned out just to be an emotional train wreck instead. Grout’s action of physical sabotage ends up probably saving Graham’s life but also nearly ending Grout’s own life. The storyline with the weakest link is the Quiss plot. For a reader to disregard this entire thread would dilute the book of most of its enticing perspectives; however, the books of the tower can reflect the towers of books in Grout’s home, thereby providing a weak psychological element between Quiss and Grout.

2. Insightful. There are some scenes in each plot which focus on a commonality between two or three of the plots: (A) tunnel, (B) books, and (C) game.

A. When “tunnel” is used in each plot, the literal inference is a passageway, a way to gain access to somewhere; this access into Sara’s home for Graham, access into safety for Grout, and access into knowledge for Quiss.

B. Books are more prominent in the Grout and Quiss plots, books as a prison and books as a blanket, respectively, but Graham also has an affair with books—Graham sees books as translucent windows into a soul, a superficial and inaccurate glimpse in the end.

C. Each character is involved in a game of their own, whether it’s obvious like the pointless games Quiss is involved in, the cat and mouse game between Sara’s love and the distance she keeps, and Grout’s vigilance against the vague powers of Them. Victory can be seen as a chance at redemption (Quiss), a chance for love reciprocated (Graham) or a chance at escaping Them (Grout); ultimately, victory is to reveal the truth of their respective reality, in one form or another.

3. Metaphotical. Adopting both the superficial and insightful elements of inspection, one last attempt at probing the novel needs to be taken to understand the absurd life which Quiss and Ajayi endure… and absurd is what it is, as Ajayi reflects, “What the hell was the point of trying to rationally to analyse what was fundamentally irrational? … [L]ife was basically absurd, unfair and–ultimately—pointless” (129). At a deeper level, the absurdity they live in and the impossibility they play with could merely be a fantasy experienced by Grout; he himself lives in a world of absurdity and impossibility and this becomes clearer towards the end of the novel after he is hospitalized. My own metaphor of the castle made from books, you may ask? Well, it could be a metaphor of (A) knowledge and (B) experience:

A. Knowledge can be manipulated, tested from theory to application, and it can stand as the scaffolding for the way we understand the world. The higher part of the castles walls are stacked books which Quiss sometimes destroys in frustration but the minions of the castle eventually replace with another tome. It’s Ajayi who takes these tomes from the walls in order to understand more of the reality she inhabits, which opposes Quiss efforts to probe deeper and deeper into the solid bedrock of the castle—that of experience.

B. Memories of experience are often malleable from their onset but soon solidify into a vague yet concrete sensation. Just as the tunnels below the castle act as a labyrinth, so too are the cornucopia of experiences and memories we all have; navigating each memory individually in chronological is impossible, which parallels Quiss frustrating attempts to map out and understand the maze or memories under the castle. Eventually, one memory (one room) provides an impossible yet remarkably clear vision of reality and, of course, the experience is addictive.

We nail together our own scaffolding of understanding of the world based on our bedrock of experience and the shifting, temporary glimpses of knowledge we all have. However, those experiences can be false: Graham’s reluctant belief to trust love at first sight and Grout’s delusion belief of Them trying to destroy his life. Regardless of new information, the hopeless romantic will always be a hopeless romantic and the conspiring paranoid will always remain a conspiring paranoid.


Whichever way you interpret Banks’ novel, there’s always something more underlying are laying parallel to your thought process. It’s like that nagging shadow in your peripheral vision that’s never there when you turn around… but you know it’s there. For a real wide-eyed, even more introspective look at Walking on Glass, I highly recommend taking a look here after you’ve formed your own opinions: (1) insight into how Iain Banks weaved in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), (2) the importance of color and omen in the first few pages, and (3) the promise and destruction of resolution to force the formation of opinion.

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