on 21 April 2014
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 synopsis, 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 envelop 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..."
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" ), 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.
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.
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 at "Coalescence and the fiction of Iain Banks" by David Leishman 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.
on 24 June 2014
I like Iain Banks, from my first exerience with The Wasp Factory many years back. This was his second - non-culture - novel, but suffers nothing from being an early work.
The story is really 3 seperate stories:
- Graham is in love with Sara ffitch, who he met via a common friend, but Sarah is sleeping with the mysterious biker Stoker.
- Grout is a somewhat confused, paranoid man who builds mazes out of science fiction books that he reads to get clues as to how to escape the prison he is in and return to his intergalactic war, where he was apparently somebody important.
- Quiss is trapped in a strange castle, playing games with his sole companion in order to win the right to answer a riddle and win his freedom.
From the start there are similarities between the Grout and the Quiss stories, though it's not clear how they intersect. Graham's story seems to have no connection at all. Towards the end of the book the 3 stories do intertwine more, and the novel finishes on a somewhat ¨meta¨ note.
I suspect that every reader will take something different away from this story, and some may dislike it for the apparent lack of resolution. I loved it - there are shades of postmodernism a la Paul Auster and Italo Calvino which really appealed to me.
I still have not read the full Banks back catalogue, but of those I have read I would say that if you like The Bridge then you will probably enjoy this one.
Higly recommended by me at any rate!
on 19 February 2016
Disappointed in this one. None of the protagonists in the three stories really interested me. Graham is too wet to waste time on; Steven - being paranoid - can only be interesting from a clinical 'what mad thing is he going to do now' viewpoint, and Quiss and Co are just so bizarre as to be pointless: why would we care? Two of the stories link up in a convoluted way at the end and there is a 'shocking' twist, if you can call it that. The sci-fi fantasy story just peters out. Ho hum. Trying too hard, I think.
This is a novel based on the simple notion that all is not what it seems.
We have three separate stories, which we cycle through, so we have the first part of each story in turn, then the second part of each, and so on.
We make assumptions, we make presumptions and we draw early conclusions about the characters and the plot. Mostly because it is in our nature to do so, but also because Banks deliberately encourages us, steering us towards our undoing.
As a result the book is something of a game between author and reader. On a purely intellenctual level I would rate this 4 stars, but ultimately the book has to stand up as a good read, and on that basis its drops down to 3 stars.
It is certainly well written - clever and witty. But it suffers from its format. With 3 short stories there is no room to develop the cast, so we end up with a collection of cartoon characters. Devices rather than individuals.
Some books leave you wanting more. This left me amused but with no real sense of enrichment. But as I said at the beginning, you might enjoy it more.
on 24 July 2015
This book... this book was wonderful and weird. Three (apparently) unrelated stories, told alternately a chapter at a time. I was worried at first about keeping track of them all, but really it was easy. I could have happily read all three stories separately and never have them connect. But, alas.
The way the stories connect is, well, two of them connect up pretty conclusively. The third, that one is more up for interpretation. Personally i saw a few ways in which connections could be made, and i haven't--and don't want--to decide specifically on one set conclusion; i like them all.
I gave this book three stars immediately after i'd read it, but having had time to think about the books more, i have upped it to four stars. Just don't expect the whole thing to be tied up neatly for you, and it's thoroughly enjoyable
on 14 December 2013
This book was extremely disappointing. Broadly speaking, the novel consists of three highly disparate narrative threads that never quite pull together tightly or neatly enough to be truly convincing. A piece of knitting with dropped stitches. Indeed, the 'joining narrative', that of Quiss & Ajayi set in 'The Castle Of Bequest', had the stench of a bad joke about it. From the expletive loving red crow to the castle attendants, who just reminded me of minions from 'Despicable Me' (although the novel obviously predated it), this part of the novel was just plain boring. The best narrative in the book belongs to Steven Grout, the paranoid road worker who can't hold down a job. Indeed, the only reason I finished reading the book was to see what would happen to Grout.
Expected more from the author of 'The Wasp Factory'.
on 10 November 2009
I first read this book some years ago in my early teens. When I saw it appear on Amazon one day. I had to buy it to read again. Fantastic ! An absolutley great first Novel by Mr. Banks. Although some of his later works are not to my taste, The wasp factory, walking on Glass and Complicity are classics.
Obsessive, Bloody, Crass, Perverse, The horrifyingly portrayed story of this young character and his family and surroundings make this a compulsive read.
I had quite forgotten how good Early Banks really is. Read it !
Walking on Glass is as underrated as it is brilliant. Iain Bank's enigmatic novel of artifice and the inherent failings of humanity has often left readers bemused and frustrated. This reviewer has little more to offer in terms of unlocking the complexities of this awesome book, save that part of Bank's brilliance is the way he never patronises his reader; choosing to tell his tale and allowing the books pervading theme of ambiguity to transcend from page to person.
It would be easy to dismiss Walking on Glass as three separate stories that are destined to collide, but in doing so one would negate the true symbiotic and symbolic facets that flow through the narrative.
Graham Park is a young man in love with Sarah ffinch, a mysterious, aloof woman he meets at a party. As he walks to meet her at her flat the story charts how Park met Sarah. And studies his growing, yet doomed, expectation.
The second character is Steven Grout a man with supposed delusions that he is trapped in a world that is not his, tormented by an enemy determined to keep him there.
And finally there is Quiss, a prisoner in a ramshackle castle; forced to fathom the rules to board games to win the right to answer the ultimate conundrum and set himself free.
Walking on Glass is a story of manipulation and isolation. It is a tale that challenges and teases human frailty; its characters trapped by their own sense of perplexity and weakness. Readers may find the lack of resolution unsettling, yet they will forever consider this a small price to pay for such an exhilarating read.
on 19 April 2010
Walking on Glass is Iain Banks' second novel and, whilst being enjoyable, requires a lot of thought on the part of the reader to make it enjoyable, and to allow the "twists" at the end of the story make sense.
Primarily, the reader follows Graham, a young man in love with an enigmatic woman named Sara, whom the story follows as he walks through London, the story being told in flashbacks. Secondly, Steven Grout, a paranoid man believing he is trapped in this world by "Tormentors" who are out to get him. Finally, the third protaganist is an old man named Quiss, who is trapped in a fascinating, mysterious castle. Quiss must play impossible games to escape the castle by answering a riddle, which he has a crack at following each game.
The real beauty of the story is the way the three protaginists stories become intertwined at the end; whilst some aspects of this are very obvious, Bank's also provides the reader with very, very subtle hints at the "reality" facing the three protaginists - I will stop here, so as not to ruin the story for readers; just be sure to pay attention! What I enjoyed was also the factor that frustrated me the most; the degree to which the three characters are linked depends entirely on the perception of the reader, and how much said reader wants to read into the story.
The sole reason that I have given Walking on Glass four stars rather than five is because the story exists solely to provide a backdrop to the ending, with the exception possibly of Quiss, the third protaginist's story. However, given that the book isn't overly long, and that the ending is truly outstanding, I would thoroughly recommend Walking on Glass. Also, it has re-read value, as you will be tempted to read it again, to see if you can pick more clues out of the stories.
Altogether, Walking on Glass is a fantastic read, partially made weighty by the banality of some aspects of the story, but not enough to stop this being a great read, with a shocking ending. I would recommend it to both science fiction fans, but also to people who are interested in the more philosophical aspect of the story. Also, people who enjoyed Iain Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory, will also enjoy this.
Thanks for reading!
on 20 February 2001
I have to admit right up front that I have absolutely no idea what 'Walking on Glass' is about! I suspect it is the kind of novel that has to be read at least twice, paying a great deal of attention each time, before it can be deciphered. It's not actually a convoluted or complicated story, just obscure. Three seemingly unrelated stories are alternated until towards the end of the novel when they come together. The first story is centered on Graham Park who is infatuated with Sara ffitch (and no, that's not a typo), a woman who has a secret - one that the reader, and Graham, doesn't learn of until their final scene together. The second story revolves around Steven Grout, a bizarre, paranoid, deeply disturbed man who thinks he is from another time and place. The final thread of the novel takes place in what is apparently the implausibly distant future: Quiss and Ajayi must complete complicated puzzles to win a chance to solve a riddle to earn their freedom...
The threads come together in the end in a manner that left me guessing as to what the hell was going on and what I hadn't quite understood. I suspect there are a number of literary references that I didn't pick up which may have helped. Banks rights in a very engaging style that, despite the contortions of the story, is easy to read and hard to put down. This is his second non Science Fiction novel, after the much more decipherable 'The Wasp Factory'. The far future scenes, with their SF settings and conventions, are obviously where Banks feels most comfortable.
See also my review of Banks' 'Consider Phlebas'.