Brad's Reviews > Walking on Glass

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks
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Jun 23, 10

bookshelves: x-acto-knives-are-nice-and-shiny, scottish-lit
Read in September, 2008

When things are bad there is always hope. At least that’s what we’re told. We grow up believing that hope is one of the single most important emotions a human can feel. It is connected to the human spirit, and we are told that hope is what allows that spirit to rise above those things that would destroy us. But is it possible that there is something flawed in that equation? Could it be that the human spirit is actually found in the antithesis of hope?

I think it is. I think the human spirit is found in despair, and that it is despair which gives humanity the impetus to overcome. Iain Banks seems to share my opinion, at least he does in Walking on Glass.

Hope is worse than futile; it actually works against actions that are necessary to overcome obstacles. Those with hope are far less likely to improve their lot; they’re far more likely to be content hoping that things will get better. Those with hope are less likely take action for change; they’re more likely to be apathetic, hoping that change will just happen. Those with hope are less likely to see to the cause of a disease; they’re far more likely to be diverted by symptoms. And so on.

But those who despair, those who have nothing left to lose, those are the ones who will strive, who will take action, who will make change, who will see the disease and attack it, knowing full well they will never achieve their goals. They will combat their despair – knowing they have nothing to lose and any change will be significant – or they will die.

This is hidden within the stories of Graham Park, Steven Grout and Quiss, which make up Banks’ Walking on Glass. They must give up (or not) hope, recognize (or not) that hope is a waste of time and overcome (or not) their despair. And it is despair, not hope, that makes the difference. Banks delivers this message with the subtlety of an art forger hiding his name on a faked canvas, leaving his readers either gutted and despairing or baffled and disappointed.

It’s no wonder that Walking on Glass remains one of Banks’ least appreciated works. Very few of us have any stomach for despair, and even fewer have the stomach for a book that embraces despair. If you have the stomach, though, this is a story for you.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Wow, Brad, I think I finally found something to disagree with you upon.

Speaking from shared experience with my spouse through his chronic disease, I have seen both of these emotions in action.

If I had left him to his despair, he would not have striven to anything but suicide.

It was hope that drove him ever onward, seeking answers and a cure against the accepted medical advice of his health care providers, who are now amazed and fully in support of his efforts because the results, while slow, have been steady over the years.

Still, an excellent review, as usual, Brad.


Brad I knew this one was going to be contentious. I held it up for a while, actually. I wrote a while ago and figured, "What the heck? It's about time I just bite the bullet and put it in."

It's great that you and your husband made it through his despair and that hope was a key to that. I've no doubt that hope can save the lives of despairing individuals, and I love success stories where the health care professionals get it wrong.

Thanks for "liking" the review even though we finally disagree ;) You are a groovy lady, Jon. Glad I know ya.


message 3: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Wonderful stuff - I had no idea the thing you were going to do on hope was going to be anything like this, fascinating.


Brad I am working on something much bigger, but this is sort of distillation of what I've been thinking about. Thanks too, Trevor, I wondered what you'd think.


message 5: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I might have more to say on this in a review I should get to today on The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 particularly her discussion of pre-War socialism. The hope/despair distinction here is a useful one to frame that, I think.


message 6: by Jon (new)

Jon Brad wrote: "Thanks for "liking" the review even though we finally disagree ;) You are a groovy lady, Jon. Glad I know ya. "

Of course I liked your review! Just because I disagree with something doesn't mean I can't like it or you. :)

Besides, I want to be a light of 'hope' in your life. :)


Brad That's why you're amazing. More people need to be like you. I love it.


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