The second novel from Banks and following on from the mordant, gothic wit of The Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass is a very different proposition altogether. Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices.
Set in pre-champagne socialist Islington and Clerkenwell in north London of the 1980s, art student Graham is in love. Naive, innocent, romantic, he has his heart set on Sara ffitch, recently divorced out of an abusive marriage. But it being Banks, even as Sara appears to respond to Graham’s interest, nothing is straightforward.
In the same Islington streets, a paranoid Steven Grout only just copes with the world around him. Constantly sacked from menial labour-intensive work, a wearer of hard hats to prevent gamarays affecting his thoughts, Grout is truly on the spectrum. His one joy is getting blindingly drunk.
And then, on a planet that transpires to be Earth in the distant future, a Banksian Gormenghast sees two elderly protagonists, Quiss and Ajayi, struggling with a captivity they desperately look to escape. Forced to provide the answer to the question What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?, the two must complete almost impossible board games (blank dominoes, Chinese scrabble) before being able to provide what they think is the right answer. Their quest is stretched out interminably with the ever-impatient Quiss using the downtime (Ajayi needs to learn Chinese in order to play the latest board game) to explore their imprisonment.
Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices. Yet there is the inevitably of a collision of the three as alternate chapters explore the three stories. And that’s a fundamental problem with Walking On Glass, a novel that is disparate in its telling and somewhat dull – Graham is a dullard, Quiss a bully, Grout tedious. None of the three separate narratives are particularly engaging – although admittedly the full extent of Banks’ dark imagination was not expected in the full reveal of the love story. And the funnel that conjoins the tales is less than impressive. Whereas The Wasp Factory was full of cruelty, sadistic carnage – and deep, sardonic wit, Walking On Glass is a skip in the park, a suburban angst of little and unconvincing consequence. Sara is mean, Quiss potentially violent but it all feels pre-The Wasp Factory, that the reality being the Islington-set tales were written considerably earlier than the first novel.