Walking on Glass is the second novel by Scottish author Iain Banks. It was published in 1985 after his controversial, stomach-turning debut The Wasp Factory.
There are some fairly serious spoilers in this write-up, particularly towards the end, so if you’re at all squeamish about that sort of thing you’d be advised not to read on.
The novel consists of three seemingly completely separate stories. Banks structures these meticulously through the book, breaking each chapter into three sections. Each section deals with one of the three story strands. Each strand's sections are titled along a different theme.
The majority of the first story is told through flashback as Graham Park, an art student, walks to meet his paramour. The titles for Park’s story are the names of the London streets he walks along in that section.
The second story concerns Steven Grout, who apparently suffers from mental illness. He exhibits extreme paranoia, and believes in a series of vast conspiracies to discredit him and demean his everyday life. He also believes he lives in purgatory for some misdeed in a war on a higher plane of existence. In respect of this, he collects newspaper clippings and other pieces of ‘evidence’ which prove that this world is not all that it seems and that he is not of it. The titles of his sections are the names of people he meets who somehow "oppress” him.
The third story is where things start getting a little weird. Two soldiers from differing sides in a far-far-far future war, Quiss and Ajayi, are imprisoned in a castle. This castle is set adrift from temporal reality as we know it – no-one ages, subjective time runs quicker the closer one gets to a clock, and although it is never entirely clear, there appears to be only one day. Ever. To end their confinement, they must correctly answer a riddle. They are supplied with board games without any instruction as to the rules. One complete play through of the game earns them the chance to submit one answer to the riddle to the mysterious rulers of the castle. The titles of their sections are the names of the game they play in that section. Examples include “Open-Plan Go,” which is played on an infinite board, or “Spotless Dominoes,” played without any markings on the domino pieces.
Although the three separate plots superficially seem to have nothing tying them together, some points seem to gel:
- Graham Park remembers a party where The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was mentioned. One of Steven Grout’s pieces of evidence is an estate agents’ called Hotblack Desiato’s.
- The castle's walls are made from books. Grout’s room has science-fiction books stacked in piles often described in terms of buildings. His idea for stopping himself knocking them all over when he returns to his bedsit drunk is to stack them “like bricks”.
- Grout believes he is being punished for misdeeds in a celestial war. Ajayi and Quiss actually are.
- In Quiss’ castle, light in the lower levels is supplied through pipes. Graham and his friend Slater drink in a pub called “The White Conduit”.
- Grout looks for “the Key” which will let him out of this life and return to the war. Ajayi calls learning languages from the wall-books and Chinese Scrabble, “a key”.
The coincidences and imagery shared between the three strands become more frequent until the last chapter, which to an extent pulls together the largely unconnected stories. It is an ambitious method of writing, successfully executed. All three of the storylines would work well enough as novellas in their own rights.
In my opinion, a key passage is towards the end, when Grout’s psychiatrist skims over his case notes, reads about Grout’s accident and experiences a brief moment of dèjá vu. He is reminded of something he had read in a newspaper (“was it yesterday?”) and pauses for a second. The subtle nature of the links between the strands means that this is a familiar feeling for the reader by that point in the book.
As a footnote, it is interesting to note the name of the author. His well known conceit is to write his science-fiction novels under the name Iain M. Banks, while the name Iain Banks is used for 'normal' fiction. Given the content of the Quiss/Ajayi story, Walking on Glass could appear to be a contender for the "M". My guess would be that the plain Iain Banks name is attached because of the contemporary real world setting of the first two stories. To qualify this, a similar example would be The Bridge, the beginning and end of which is set in 1990s Scotland, while most of the novel is an extended fantasy interlude.