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Book Review : Left Stranded on a Literary Excursion

February 20, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95)

In "Walking on Glass," Iain Banks has woven three silky and sinuous narrative strands into a pattern that is disappointingly indistinct. It is an enticing riddle with a woolly solution.

Three stories, set in what appear to be vastly different worlds, begin simultaneously and advance in trio through the novel's five sections. Gradually, they seem to converge, though most improbably; and this expectation of seeing the improbable actually happen provides the book with what, while it lasts, is a considerable momentum.

The first story gives us Graham Park, a susceptible young art student who is on his way to a rendezvous with Sara, a bewitching and elusive young woman he has been pursuing with a frustrating lack of success.

Pondering the Puzzles

As he walks through north-central London, he is accompanied for part of the way by Slater, a clever and highly mannered friend who had introduced him to Sara at a party. In the successive episodes, each covering a few more blocks, Graham reconstructs portions of the Sara enigma: her fluctuating, hot-and-cold responses, and the hovering presence of a tough, motorcycle-riding rival named Stock.

While Graham plods north, alternately hopeful and foreboding, a second figure makes a series of deranged rounds through the same neighborhood. He is Steven Grout, a discharged road-mender who labors under the belief that he is a warrior in a galactic battle between good and evil and has been expelled for some transgression and assigned to a humdrum London life. His gait is a series of quick sprints and pauses, since he is convinced that passing cars are trying to zap him with laser guns fixed to their axles.

In the third story, seemingly set far into the future, two old people, Quist and Ajayi, are prisoners in a castle built out of slate, glass and books, in a trackless snowy waste. They had been officers on opposing sides in a conflict called the Therapeutic Wars, and each--a dim link to Steven--is being punished for a misdeed.

Unfathomable Rules

Served by a regiment of incompetent dwarfs and mocked by a flight of talking crows, Quist and Ajayi play an endless succession of games with unfathomable rules, trying to solve a riddle which, if answered, will set them free.

In each episode, they play a new game and try out a new answer. Quist, active and rebellious, explores the mysteries of the castle and its hidden rooms. Eventually he comes upon its secret: It is a repository of millions of prisoners who, instead of struggling to escape, exist in a trance-vision of the past.

Banks, author of "The Wasp Factory," does some ingenious things to keep these three stories, for a while, in a mysterious and purposeful balance. The Graham segments proceed initially as a spritely comical romance, and Graham's enchantment at his first meeting with Sara shortens not only his breath, but ours. But shadows are introduced, leading finally to his shocking discovery of who Sara, Stock and Slater really are.

The world of Steven has its dark side but it is amusingly absurd as well. He creeps about, removing road patches in revenge for being fired, and finally is knocked unconscious by a beer barrel jolted off a truck bumping over one of his new holes.

Light That Dims

As for Quist's and Ajayi's castle, there is some disarmingly prosaic comedy in its portentous workings. Eventually, though, Quist's discoveries become too arcane and complex to sustain themselves. There is too much explanation that doesn't explain, and a final illumination that darkens.

Furthermore, the convergence, that has been so nicely suggested, finally peters out. The link between Steven, the road-mender, and the castle prisoners becomes apparent when he is removed to a mental hospital after his beer-barreling. The revelation is commonplace, though--not so much solving Quist's and Ajayi's high mystery as deflating it.

As for Graham's story, its final shock is neatly, if nastily, effective in itself. But it has no real connection, other than a minor entanglement of plot, with the other two. Banks is a writer of uncommon cleverness and considerable originality. "Walking on Glass" launches us on an entertaining and surprising excursion, but it strands us partway, and we walk home.

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