David B. Livingstone
Anybody would be forgiven a measure of confusion upon entry into one of Iain Banks’ many fictional worlds. From the moldering attic at the epicenter of The Wasp Factory to the immense, hallucinatory title structure of The Bridge, Banks has always delighted in plunging his readers into strange, painstakingly described settings and situations within parallel universes both like and unlike the “real” world, populated with familiar yet bizarre characters. One continually grapples for a foothold within a Banks novel, only to be undercut by sudden plot twists and ultimately-unreliable narrators. It’s a method that attained a pinnacle of sorts in his earlier Complicity, wherein a video game-obsessed journalist – who just might be a murderer – alternately charmed with glib asides and repulsed with cold-bloodedness.
A Song Of Stone takes a similar tack: the florid, grandiose nobleman without a title Abel and his (wife? Girlfriend? Something else?) Morgan find themselves refugees after a band of marauding soldiers overtakes their castle during a fuzzily-defined war taking place unnamed country, happening during a time frame which could easily be either the early 1900s or the present. Taking to the road in a horse cart with only a few of their possessions, they encounter “the Lieutenant” – something of a female “Rambo” – and her ragtag band of soldier-raiders, charmingly and symbolically nicknamed such things as “Psycho,” “Karma,” and “Deathwish.” The Lieutenant forces Abel and Morgan to return with her band to their former home, to live as unwilling hosts to the soldiers and unhappy witnesses to their unending carnage. Once within the castle walls, Abel’s long nightmare begins: A society of the mad begins to crystallize around him, a perverse and inflexible hierarchy within a world of chaos that threatens to consume or destroy everything that he loves – while stripping bare dark secrets he’s guarded for a lifetime.
Abel is, he leads us to believe, a paragon of civility and virtue – dignified, refined, almost absurdly well-spoken, a lover of art and culture, a last vestige of order and decency in a world gone mad. But Abel, we soon learn, doth protest too much; he and the strangely-silent Morgan may have more in common with the barbarism that menaces them than they realize, or would care to admit. For every manifestation of violence and ugliness that erupts around them, there seems to be an eruption of a corresponding internal sickness and spiritual rot. Abel may in fact be a man of his times, with all the taint that that entails, in spite of his professions to the contrary, and it is these spiritual malignancies which may have set the cataclysm around him in motion, and which may completely destroy him.
In Iain Banks’ universe, nothing is ever as it appears to be; his characters, their surroundings, and the events affecting them are all constructs of shifting sand, subject to substantial alteration by simple shifts of perspective. Abel, Morgan, and their Lieutenant are all ultimately unknowable, becoming less cohesive as the story unfolds, as details emerge, rather than more.
As Abel and the twisted world within his castle spiral further downward into madness, A Song Of Stone abandons its veneer of realism and becomes a complex, enigmatic parable of sorts, replete with vague biblical allusions, culminating in a heavily symbolic ritual bloodletting that reads like a crucifixion scene. As Banks imagination takes to full, gory flight, Song becomes less the war story-cum-heroic personal struggle it first appeared and more a dark, surreal fantasy.
By this point in his career, it’s the sort of inversion we should expect from Banks, but then Banks’ inversions are never what we would expect. Iain Banks long ago staked out the no man’s land between realism, science fiction, and fantasy as his own personal terrain, and in A Song Of Stone he proves that he remains the unquestioned lord and master of his domain.