The City at the End of Things

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (1985): Banks’ second quasi-mainstream novel (as opposed to his science-fiction novels as Iain M. Banks) follows three seemingly, initially unconnected narratives through to their conclusive collision.

Or maybe not entirely a collision, because while two of the narratives herein are set in 1983 England, the third is set in some weird, distant future. The possibility exists that this third existence has been imagined by one of the protagonists of the other two narratives, but nothing is clear. The third narrative may simply be the fictional conclusion of the imaginative journey of the second narrative’s protagonist. Or not. Elements of surrealism and absurdism occur throughout the third narrative; the other two narratives seem to be relatively straightforward realism.

In any case, Walking on Glass does a fine job of depicting time, place, and various states of mind. While the protagonist of the first narrative finds himself pining for a platonic love, the second protagonist appears to be a paranoid schizophrenic caught within his own self-created delusions of persecution and otherness.

In the third narrative, warriors from opposite sides of some cosmic battle find themselves imprisoned in a Kafkaesque castle until such time as they can correctly answer the question, “What happens when an irresistable force meets an immovable object?”

But to earn the right to answer the question once, they must successfully play and complete a game for which they have no rules: one-dimensional chess and invisible dominoes being two such games that we see, with the successful completion of each allowing for one answer. Should the answer prove wrong, they must start again at a new game. Rinse. Repeat.

While assorted postmodern games abound within the narrative and its metafictional tropes as well, the plights of the various characters are nonetheless compelling and even tragic. One thing that a awful lot of critics seem to have completely missed is the basic importance of the last name of the middle protagonist, Grout.

Like grout, his story binds — in this case, it binds the other two narratives together; they meet only through his story. Make of that, and an assortment of other peculiarities and oddities, what you will. The last fifty pages or so are quite harrowing, for all the game-playing that has gone on before, and for all the revelations of other games that will come before the end. Highly recommended.

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