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Walking on Glass

Walking on Glass was the second novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks. It was published in 1985.

Plot introduction

It has three storylines that do not appear to be linked, but eventually come together, to an extent that depends upon how much the reader wishes to read into the book.

Plot summary

Each part of Walking on Glass, apart from the last, is divided into three sections, which appear at first sight to be independent stories.

  • Graham Park is a young man in love with a girl he met at a party, Sarah ffitch. Richard Slater is his friend. Bob Stock, a "macho black-leathered never-properly-seen image of Nemesis" seems all that stands in the way of Graham's happiness.
  • Steven Grout is a paranoid roadmender who believes himself to be an admiral from a galactic war imprisoned in the body of an Earthman. He believes he is under constant threat from the Microwave Gun, and reads lots of science fiction, since:

'He had long ago realised that if he was going to find any clues to the whereabouts of the Way Out, the location or identity of the Key, there was a good chance he might get some ideas from that type of writing.'

  • Quiss is one of a pair of war criminals (the other is Ajayi) from opposing sides in a galactic war, who are imprisoned in the Castle of Bequest (also Castle Doors) and forced to play impossible games until they can solve the riddle: "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?"

Eventually, links between the three storylines become apparent, and the ending has a flavour of incest.

Literary significance & criticism

Perhaps unjustly, Walking on Glass is now one of Banks' least regarded books. It was keenly awaited after the critical acclaim for Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory, and many critics felt that, although the structure was clever, the book was too much about structure and that the characters were inadequately developed. Many, if not all, of the themes and devices used here are arguably done better in his other works.

The idea of having apparently unrelated stories joined to make a book is hardly a new one: Alasdair Gray's Lanark was an obvious influence on Banks, who later used the technique again in The Bridge, his next mainstream work, which can be seen as addressing some of the problems with Walking on Glass.

Quiss's Gothic castle is a combination of Franz Kafka and Mervyn Peake. After saving Quiss from suicide Ajayi reads the titles of the books on the wall: "Titus Groan, she read, talking softly to herself. The Castle, Labyrinths, The Trial"

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." (quoted in reference below)

Release details

  • 1985, UK, Macmillan (ISBN 0-349-10178-7) Pub date 7 March 1985, hardback (first edition)

External links

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