Although this was a re-read for me, given that it’s been 35 years since I read it and it’s not one of Banks’s more celebrated novels, I think I can be forgiven for not remembering a thing about it. I read my first edition UK Futura paperback in the small format, with a white cover embossed with shards. While some would describe it as a ‘difficult second novel’, coming after the psychological horror of Banks’s hit debut The Wasp Factory the year before, I prefer to call it a ‘different’ second novel!
Boldly, Banks tells three parallel stories with different protagonists, revisiting each five times through the course of the novel, plus a conclusion at the end. As you might hope, the three strands will gradually reveal some parallels and they do actually come together in the end. Let me tell you a bit about each.
1. Graham Park
Graham is an art student. He has an assignation with a young woman with whom he has become obsessed. Sara ffitch (with two little fs) had been introduced to him by his flamboyantly gay friend Slater at a party,
in less than the time it took her to walk from one side of the room to the other, he knew he loved her.
‘This is the little ingénu I keep trying to seduce, Sara,’ Slater said, presenting Graham with one delicate roll of the hand. ‘Mr Graham Park this is Mrs Sara ffitch. Quite the most gorgeous and elegant thing to come out of Shropshire since…well, me.’
She’s newly single again, left the husband. Graham is nervous, anxious. He hopes he’s on a promise, but is aware she has a boyfriend, Stock, who rides a big motorbike. He’s aware he’s a ‘country hick’ and not a city boy, and feels like everyone is watching and knows it. Graham’s story follows him on his walk to Sara’s flat from the tube station, street by street, with flashbacks to their previous meetings. In fact each of Graham’s sections is titled by road name, and his journey does work on the map of Islington.
2. Steven Grout
Grout is mentally ill, completely paranoid and in the grip of numerous conspiracy theories. He’s just quit his job in sewer construction after an incident with a cat because of the microwave beams being trained on him. Unfortunately he quit before they could fire him, and when he goes to the employment office he can’t sign on, and he gets rather upset due to their beams too. Everyone is out to get him. Dodging the beams by lurking behind parked cars, he sugars petrol tanks as he goes so they won’t be able to come after him. He eventually reaches a bar where his final pay packet is shared with the resident drunk there. Grout’s sections are all named after those he interacts with, so Mr Smith, his supervisor in the first, Clerk Starke at the employment office in the second, and so on.
Whereas the first two strands are both present day, the third gives us our first glance of Banks’s SF. Quiss and Ajayi are on opposite sides in the Therapeutic War. They are kept in a strange castle with glass floors and ceilings, the walls are made of books, where they must work out how to play innumerable games: board games, card games, strategic games – some you’ll recognise from having played yourself, but Banks introduces a twist to each. Each game they master gives them an opportunity to present an answer to one of the oldest paradoxes: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. They’ve been there for years already, (regularly taunted by a talking red crow). On breaks from the games, Quiss explores the lower levels of the castle, wondering why there are huge kitchens catering for large numbers of people with teams of minions whom he is not afraid to be rather physical with, when he and Ajayi are the only
guests prisoners, what he eventually discovers raises even more questions. Quiss’s sections are all named for the games he and Ajayi play.
Given that the third story is so different, I loved the way that Banks bound the three together at the end. There are elements that resonate through all three, in fact, the more you go looking for things the more you find, which would have pleased Banks. Obviously the first two share their Islington setting, but all of them feature tunnels or enclosed passages – either as means of access or a hiding place – (including the Islington Canal Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal in Islington). Slater is always proposing absolutely absurd SF plots for stories, I think mainly to wind Graham up, but his bizarre stories resonate with Quiss’s timeline, and talking SF, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gets a mention! All three main protagonists are imprisoned by one means or another in the games that they play, Graham emotionally, Grout by microwaves and his psychosis, Quiss literally in the castle.
There were four other things that tickled me. Firstly, there’s a massive typo on the back cover in which Grout is called Grant! Then, In Grout’s timeline, at one stage he is medicated with ‘Dexamethasone’ – very topical in pandemic times. Thirdly, at one stage towards the end of Quiss’s story, he is looking at some windows, and notes that there is little glass left in the top of them. ‘Something like clear tar had flowed from the almost empty frames, where only a thin edge of glass lay in the bottom of each hexagon of the metal frames.’ A materials science fact! Glass is actually a (very viscous) liquid – and over hundreds of years it creeps, it can’t resist the gradual pull of gravity. Finally, Banks actually proposes a solution to the paradox – a typically serious yet slightly tongue in cheek answer – but I couldn’t possibly repeat it here.
Walking on Glass was well worth the re-read and shows that Banks’s mind was already working on his SF. His next novel, The Bridge – his favourite he has said – would be totally different still. I hadn’t realised that Banks had studied a tripartite degree at Stirling – English, Philosophy and Psychology and can’t help wondering if the companion subjects to English influenced his writing – surely, they must have – for there is much philosophy and psychology in his first novels and beyond.
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Walking on Glass – Futura paperback 239 pages. Now Abacus paperback 317 pages.
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