IAIN Banks has taught me many things about writing over the years, the first of which was: never try and bluff your way through a university tutorial by pretending you’ve read more of a book than you actually have.
Not if the book is The Bridge, and it abruptly switches to an entirely different narrative voice a few pages after the place you stopped reading it.
The Bridge, as Stuart Kelly observed last week, upped the ante on Alasdair Gray’s Lanark by splitting its Scottish narrator’s fractured identity into not two but three distinct narrative voices. I hadn’t read Lanark at the time, but The Bridge – once I’d pulled my student socks up – soon pointed me towards it, and, in time, towards similarly structured experimental novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility Of An Island, and Banks’ own Walking On Glass.
The latter turned out to be my favourite Banks book. I loved the way it combined a small, very familiar contemporary drama about a man’s heart being cruelly broken, and a fantastical tale of futuristic space creatures trapped in a castle, in a way that added gravitas and poignancy to both. Banks has said in the past that he’s not sure the conceit quite worked, because it left some readers baffled rather than moved. The same is true of Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain, which combines three different stories to add resonance to one (a man’s futile attempt to stop his wife from dying), and which divided people sharply. I loved both.
It occurred to me last week that the journey that led me to The Fountain began with The Bridge. The Bridge also led me, more quickly, to The Wasp Factory, whose black, twisted humour and violence led me to Bret Easton Ellis, Will Self and Chuck Palahniuk. After years of Dickens, Hardy and Austen, this kind of stuff blew my teenage mind. And it all began with Iain Banks.
I suspect this is true for a lot of people, and that this goes some way to explaining the vast number of tributes posted at the website friends.banksophilia.com following Wednesday’s terrible news. Banks is, still, a living example of how literature can be both daring, subversive and experimental, and unapologetically populist enough to catch the imagination of people who – like me at 18 – are not necessarily big readers of fiction. Writers like Banks – brilliantly smart yet down to earth (I loved that, like me, he was a student at Stirling and a Monty Python geek) – are gateways for the young and easily intimidated. He was for me, anyway, and I’ll always be grateful.