Monday, November 4, 2013

The Bridge by Iain Banks

A tweet from SF blogger star Joachin Boaz alerts me to the fact that Iain Banks has been recognized with a special award at the 2013 British Fantasy Awards.  I read an Iain Banks novel, The Bridge, many years ago, and recently found in my archives a somewhat jocular and quite mixed review I wrote of it.  This review I paste below.

I sold my copy of The Bridge long ago, and could only find this one less-than-ideal image online of the paperback edition I read.

The Bridge by Iain Banks

As far as I can tell, The Bridge is about this working-class Scottish guy who, in college in the 1960s, begins an on-again-off-again love affair with a rich woman.  These two are left-wing hippies, having all kinds of promiscuous sex, using drugs, railing against capitalism, saying nasty things about Thatcher and Reagan and laudatory things about the Soviet Union and the Sandinistas.  As he gets older, the main character, despite his politics, becomes a very successful engineer, making piles of money and buying all kinds of expensive cars.  Then, one day, drunk and stoned, kaboom, he gets in a terrific car crash, and is put into a coma, during which he has vivid surreal dreams.

These surreal dreams, and not the banal "real life" story, form the bulk of the book.  The main dream is about the Scottish dude's life in a city of skyscrapers built upon a colossal railroad bridge, a life of amnesia lived at the mercy of mysterious people and powers, but there are also various "sub-dreams," including a sort of Conan/Elric/Aeneas pastiche and several episodes of a military character.  These dreams have a sort of unifying theme: that of powerlessness, all of them portraying people whose fates are determined by others.

What you might call the novel's central "literary conceit" or "device" is how the "real life"and dream portions are interspersed with and influence each other, rather than being presented in strict chronological order.  A long fantastical segment will be followed by a briefer biographical segment, a sort of flashback, in which we learn the source of the elements present in the dream. 

Is this book worth reading?  It's not exactly bad (and many people seem to adore it), and some of the scenes in the bridge city and in the sword and sorcery parody are good and memorable, but as a whole it came up short for me.  The main character (who after all is shown to not be running his own life) is not very compelling, and the "real life" portion of the story is mostly a tedious exercise in nostalgia (again and again we hear about what sort of rock music the Scottish engineer likes.) The dream sequences really have the surreal character of dreams, which shows literary skill, but also imbues them with a sort of airiness, dimness, nebulousness and basic lack of reality that is characteristic of dreams, and makes one wonder what the point of them is.  In fact, the book as a whole leaves me with that feeling: there is no overarching plot, the the portions of the book that have a plot are dreams in which the narrator is virtually powerless, driven by the whims and wills of others, dreams whose significance lies in their containing mental artifacts from the dreamer's less than exciting real life.  So what is the point?  That under capitalism (or maybe life in general) we are at the mercy of forces not under our control?  Perhaps.

Since I read The Bridge a decade or more ago I have not read any more of Banks's work, and it seems unlikely that I will read any in the future.


1 comment:

  1. Under the name Iain *M.* Banks, he wrote some utterly amazing science fiction--mostly in his multi-novel Culture series--while as Iain Banks he wrote more contemporary, mainstream, less genre-specific works (his first novel, THE WASP FACTORY, was fairly controversial in the UK). I certainly enjoyed THE BRIDGE, although I understand your criticisms of it. THE PLAYER OF GAMES, his 1988 SF novel, remains one of my favorite reading experiences of my life. His writing in it is witty and bold and he can create SF worlds that boggle the mind and, at times, freeze the blood. USE OF WEAPONS is quite good SF as well. I haven't loved everything by him, but he was a steady writer and somewhat of a personality across the pond, writing books on Scotch whiskey and appearing on TV as he was so engaging, warm, and brilliant. Sadly, he died of cancer last year at only 54. Give him another go!