Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 03 Aug 2018

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks

Walking on Glass, published in 1985 was Banks’ second novel and followed on from the hugely successful debut, The Wasp Factory. Banks died tragically young at the age of 59 in 2013 but by that time he had established himself as a fiercely independent contemporary novelist and enjoyed a second identity as the science fiction author, Iain M. Banks.

I don’t usually rush to give you my summative response to a book and certainly not before I’ve tried to give you a sense of what the experience of reading it has been. However, on this occasion I feel compelled to put my cards on the table and say that I really didn’t enjoy this novel - I thought it was a puzzling and ultimately unsatisfactory reading experience in every way. If there was ever an example of a novelist trying to be too clever by three-quarters, this is it. And, having done a bit of modest research, it seems I am not the only person who thinks this book didn’t quite cut it – Banks himself had his doubts as highlighted by the Literary Encyclopaedia:

“Iain Banks commented that the book "didn’t do exactly what it set out to do and I think you have failed to an extent if the reader can’t understand what you’re saying. I worry sometimes that people will read Walking on Glass and think in some way I was trying to fool them, which I wasn’t."

Banks sets up three parallel stories which appear to have no real relationship to each other until near the end of the book when two of the strands cross over in what is, it has to be said, a pretty contrived way. Not nearly as contrived, though, as the third storyline which I really struggled to make relevant to the first two in any significant way.

Storyline number one concerns art student Graham Park who has fallen for the rather Pre-Raphaelite, but divorced, Sara ffitch (yes, two lower case fs – how irritating is that?!) who seems to be trying to extricate herself from a relationship with a mystery, leather-clad biker. Park moons around and moans a lot to his gay friend, Slater, who originally introduced him to Sara. Park has lost his heart to the young woman but will she reciprocate? We will discover later that this story is a bit more complex than this initial set-up suggests it’s going to be and it will provide what is probably the biggest surprise in the book.

The second story takes us into the paranoid world of Steven Grout who is convinced that ‘they’ are out to get him. He thinks he’s being bombarded by microwaves targeted exclusively at him and he’s convinced cars exist to suffocate him. Not surprisingly, he can’t keep a job and he has frustrating and occasionally amusing set-tos with the Unemployment Benefit office. He is robbed by a drunk he befriends before he is hospitalised by a flying barrel in an accident caused by the mystery biker from Graham Park’s story.

The final strand of the book is set in a science fiction-like future where two exiles from "the Therapeutic Wars," play endless board games with no rules in order to win their freedom by trying to answer the riddle of what happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object. All the time a talking bird tries to get them to commit suicide. Meanwhile, in the castle basement, thousands of other exiles stand on chairs with their heads in holes in the ceiling, through which they enter the minds of humans living in the past (our present). 

I struggled to get to grips with what Banks was trying to do with all this. You can argue that all three strands of the story represent versions of fantasy – the fantasy of love in Graham Parks case; the paranoid fantasies of Steven; and, finally, the future fantasy that SF represents. Ultimately they are exactly that – fantasies – and all of them end up being subservient to reality. But I can’t help but feel I’m stretching it in trying to draw this out. 

Putting aside the need for the book to have some meaningful sense of direction or purpose, it’s worth asking whether it was an enjoyable read – and the answer for me has to be, no. None of the strands work as stories in their own right – the characters are two dimensional, their behaviour cardboard and the storylines full of holes and contradictions.

I can’t help but think Banks was trying to work with profound ideas here, trying to make his novel ‘significant’, but maybe it was just too early in his career to take the gamble of holding it all together and communicating his vision effectively. It’s all really a great disappointment.


Terry Potter

July 2018