Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Flight of fantasy

Back to Iain Banks territory, but dipping once more into his fiction. However, a singularly strange addition to his fictional canon this time: his 1986 novel The Bridge.

Ordinarily I'd say something about the plot at this point, just to remind me what it was all about for later. While it would be possible to go into the details of the sequence of events in The Bridge, this would would largely miss the point of the novel (at least as I interpreted it). Instead, it's probably just better to say that, vis-à-vis the cover blurb, The Bridge describes the extended fantasies of a comatose man critically injured in a car accident. The narrative is split between several broadly unconnected strands, united only (at least ostensibly) by their essentially hallucinating narrator.

The most significant strand describes the quest by an amnesiac man to discover the circumstances that led him to be confined to what appears to be an never-ending bridge that doubles as a linear city as well as a thoroughfare. This strand begins with the man describing dreams (or dreams that he invents) to the psychiatrist assigned to resolve his amnesia, but ultimately takes in a hellish journey to a distant warzone. As the novel progresses, this strand is joined by another in which the injured man gradually recounts his own biography, a narrative that returns repeatedly to the Forth Railway Bridge, a structure that informs the bridge on which the amnesiac is confined. Flitting between these strands is a further one, a bizarre fantasy involving a barbarian and his familiar. Written in a Scots vernacular (which slowly disappears as it progresses), this is an almost fantasy fiction tale which takes the barbarian on travels that rope in Greek mythology and even hints at Banks' own Culture universe.

As the foregoing implies, this is something of a unique and rather complicated novel. Banks has made an attempt to structure it by dividing it into several parts (named after geological periods; a nod to the narrator's real-world job), and also through the ordering and frequency with which narrative strands appear. But I still struggled to make an awful lot of sense from its jumping between what are quite disconcertingly different threads.

That said, while reading it I really didn't find that this actually mattered all that much. Although I was, and still am, confused by what all of the narratives stand for or symbolically mean, I found myself picked up and carried along by the fantastical nature of the novel. The central narrative of the amnesiac creates such a rich and mesmerising world, that I really wasn't bothered that I couldn't work out what it was all about. And the narrative concerning the barbarian is a real hoot. Much as with Banks' later science fiction novel, Feersum Endjinn, which employs a similar style, reading the first-person and largely phonetic description of the barbarian's trials is a great laugh. By contrast, the gradual interleaving of the more biographical narrative seems altogether too conventional. It describes a life that is almost certainly autobiographical in part, and while it's gradually tied into the other stories, by the end it still stands a little too proud of them. And I still haven't quite worked out the significance of its details for the fantasy worlds of the Bridge and the barbarian.

In passing, one of the points I enjoyed in the biographical narrative was its description of growing up in Scotland. Without getting too precious about it, I found that this occasionally paralleled my own experience. The novel paints a recognisable portrait of small-town life in the 60s and 70s, a life that's supplanted when the narrator becomes the first member of his family to go to university. While this is a life-expanding experience, the narrator finds that his broadened horizons also open something of a gulf with his family. The novel doesn't make this as overblown as I just have, but I recognised some of the same things in my own past.

Anyway, a pretty singular book from Banks. With the exception of the first-person vernacular, it shares very little with any of his other books, fiction or science fiction. I don't think that it's as successful at melding the different strands as it could be, and the transitions and revelations that link them seem quite forced and obvious at times. But it was still a very enjoyable read just for the imagination that Banks has put into it. It's interesting that he's never gone back to anything quite like it - for all their baroque space opera and contemporary themes, his later books are actually rather conventional compared to this. But definitely worth a look for fans of Banks I reckon.


chimpaction said...

Ahhh... The only Banks book I've started and then gave up...and started and gave up... I don't think I ever had the patience to try and unravel it. But maybe the key is as you suggest not to try and decipher.

Plumbago said...

I'd agree that the book doesn't do its readers any favours for at least the first half. You're just left twisting in the wind wondering what it's all about.

The "unravelling" is actually kind-of spoilt by the book cover blurb, which makes it abundantly clear that the narratives are the fantasies of a comatose man. If you didn't know that, then it would present something of a puzzle (perhaps your edition didn't mention this?).

Anyway, when it comes, the unravelling seemed a bit forced to me. And the connections between the narratives seem only to be that the comatose man has visited the Forth Railway Bridge a lot, and that the amnesiac and barbarian have occasional visions of a man on hospital bed. Why, for instance, the amnesiac goes on a journey that takes him to a warzone (and a bit of bestiality) is completely opaque.

Overall, I'd certainly not rate it as highly as his other books by any means, but as I said in the blog, it's a pretty singular novel. And I loved the idea of people living on a never-ending bridge. That and the barbarian's portions are pretty funny.