science fiction and fantasy book reviewsThe Bridge by Iain M. Banks science fiction book reviewsThe Bridge by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks is a versatile Scottish writer, equally skilled in far-future space opera (the CULTURE series), dark contemporary novels (The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass), and a host of novels in between. The Bridge is one of his earlier books, and the late author’s personal favorite according to an interview. It was also selected by David Pringle in his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. I’ve had it on the TBR list for about two decades, and finally got around to listening to it on audio.

The Bridge (1986) is narrated by Peter Kenny, the highly talented narrator of most of Banks’ novels, who is a master of British and Scottish accents and understands Banks’ ironic sense of humor. They are one of my favorite author/narrator collaborations, so I highly recommend any of their audiobooks. The Bridge, in particular is strongly Scottish in flavor. It has three protagonists:

1) John Orr, a John Doe with amnesia who wakes up in a strange world that consists of the Bridge, a self-contained society living along a seemingly endless bridge that is closely controlled by the authorities, which contains no overt connections to the “outside” world.

2) Alex, a successful mechanical engineer who has become jaded with his material success but failed relationship with his beloved Andrea. He has all the trappings of wealth, including expensive sports cars, high-end stereo equipment, a series of casual relationships, and partnership in his engineering firm. But Andrea has left him for a French lover, so he turns to alcohol and drugs to numb his misery.

3) The Barbarian, a Scottish swordsman of the past who lives by his sword, quick to kill or take what he wants, an embodiment of primal male aggressiveness without the restraints of civilization. Just like Bascule the Teller in Feersum Endjinn (1994), his parts are narrated in a very thick Scottish brogue, denoted with phonetic spelling.

Here’s a sample of The Barbarian, who is often hilariously outrageous and unapologetic:

I luv the ded, this old baster sez to me when I wiz tryin to get some innfurmashin out ov him. You fukin old pervirt I sez, gettin a bit fed up by this time enyway, an slit his throate; ah asks you whare the fukin Sleeping Byootie woz, no whit kind of humpin you lyke.

The story alternates between these three very different voices, and over time we come to understand their relationship. It’s hard to avoid spoilers if you read any reviews of the book, but the pleasures of the book lie in the unfolding of the story, so I won’t reveal anything here. The book is very nicely constructed, with the three main sections cleverly titled COMA (Metaphormosis), TRIASSIC (Metamorpheus), and EOCENE (Metamorphosis).

The central questions of the book are not which reality is “real”, but rather which “reality” is preferable. The story of Alex is a contemporary one of a jaded, selfish, and disaffected modern man, and his inability to maintain meaningful relationships. We get a detailed look at his blue-collar upbringing in Glasgow, studies at the University of Edinburgh, steady climb to success, and ultimate dissatisfaction. It’s a sad picture of the UK in the 1980s under Thatcherism, and includes plenty of pop-culture references to music, politics, the economy, etc.

What makes The Bridge unique and mysterious are the two other narrators, John Orr and The Barbarian. John Orr has no idea how he ended up on the Bridge, and has many conversations with Dr. Joyce, his psychotherapist. Initially John tries hard to understand what happened, but his lack of progress leads to him being abandoned by his doctor, and he turns instead to exploring the self-contained world of the Bridge.

Is it all a dream? Which one is the real world? This would be fairly clichéd territory if Banks were to simply wrap up the story with “then he woke up, and it was all a dream.” Instead, the narratives of John Orr and Alex are initially given equal weight but this shifts as the story progresses. Even as we realize how they are connected, it is not simply a matter of “waking up” to make the other threads go away. Instead, we are given an emotionally-honest exploration of their internal realities, with the ambiguous but concrete symbolism of the Bridge looming above, around, and throughout the story. Is each of us living on a Bridge, self-contained and unique, without recourse to escape? Doomed to wander from end to end, seeking meaning and meaningful relationships with others around us, never quite sure what it all means?

The Bridge could easily be described as Kafkaesque for its weird metaphorical mental landscapes, but it has a flavor all its own, and a very Scottish one at that. I think the narration by Peter Kenny really gives it that added flair, and the Coda felt very meaningful — to me, at least. It’s a book that will be interpreted differently by each reader, and some will find it ambiguous or disappointing, but like all of Banks’ books, I found it worth the time and effort.

Publisher: The man who wakes up in the extraordinary world of a bridge has amnesia, and his doctor doesn’t seem to want to cure him. Does it matter? Exploring the bridge occupies most of his days. But at night there are his dreams. Dreams in which desperate men drive sealed carriages across barren mountains to a bizarre rendezvous; an illiterate barbarian storms an enchanted tower under a stream of verbal abuse; and broken men walk forever over bridges without end, taunted by visions of a doomed sexuality. Lying in bed unconscious after an accident wouldn’t be much fun, you’d think. Oh yes? It depends who and what you’ve left behind. Which is the stranger reality, day or night? Frequently hilarious and consistently disturbing, THE BRIDGE is a novel of outrageous contrasts, constructed chaos and elegant absurdities.