Iain Banks considered this to be his best novel. He said ‘Definitely the intellectual of the family, it’s the one that went away to University and got a first’. But it is not the easiest one to read. It mostly deals with the thoughts and dreams of Alex, victim of a car crash who is comatose for most of the book. The crash itself is described in the first two pages. One of our members skipped this bit, thinking it was the preface. Dear reader, don’t make the same mistake. But whether one misses this or not, it takes a while – perhaps 70 pages – before the penny drops and structure and plot dawn on the reader.
The bridge is a fictionalized and exaggerated version of the Forth Rail Bridge, the huge cantilever construction in red-painted steel, built in 1890, connecting Edinburgh with Fife. The bridge in the novel is much bigger, vast and multilayered, very wide, apparently a world to itself with its own totalitarian government. The bridge is a powerful metaphor for society or possibly for the author’s psyche. Where does the bridge start and end? No-one knows; perhaps it doesn’t end on dry land at all. Later, when the protagonist travels for days along it, he passes through different climatic zones, so we may conclude that the bridge is at least hundreds of km long.
In real life the protagonist is a young business man from Glasgow called Alex. He likes drink, drugs and fast cars. When still a young student in Edinburgh he falls in love with one Andrea Cramond, an advocate’s daughter. But she goes to live in France and enters into another relationship. He hits the drink and crashes his souped-up Jaguar. When in a coma he lives on the bridge as the amnesiac John Orr, periodically meeting his psychiatrist Dr Joyce. Sometimes another character called The Barbarian pops up; one who rants and raves in broad Scots dialect, often incoherently – something like a Scottish Caliban. The key to understanding the book is that Alex, John Orr and The Barbarian are one and the same, each representing a different facet of one man’s psyche. To make matters more complicated, the Barbarian has an enigmatic being on his shoulder called ‘The Familiar’. Not, we thought, the famous chip on the shoulder that Scots are supposed to have, but a representation of, well, what exactly? There was no consensus. One of us thought it was a phallus, but perhaps it was a mentor, a guardian angel, a parrot, or the id. Or even a representation of a controlling force, someone suggested the government in Westminster.
John’s adventures on the bridge are bizarre. At first, he lives a comfortable life in which he is provided for. He undergoes treatment for his amnesia by a psychiatrist and dream analyst called Dr Joyce, and to please the good doctor he invents dreams. Opinions were divided about whether there was supposed to be a real life Dr Joyce who was treating him during intermissions from the coma, or whether it is all a dream during the coma (we digressed: can comatose people dream? Can comatose people make up dreams during dreams? Can comatose people be considered amnesiac, since there are completely unconscious?). The invented dreams are so vividly recalled and detailed that Joyce suspects they are made up and tells John that he wants to change the treatment to hypnotherapy. When John refuses he is banished to a lower level of the bridge, where privileges and personal clothing are perfunctorily withdrawn. However, the beautiful Abberlaine Arrol rescues him; she is none other than the bridge’s version of his real life lover Andrea; she provides clothes and an apartment; they make love. During the act of love he fantasizes about girders, women’s underwear and other engineering structures and concludes ‘I feel like I have just fucked the bridge’. Subtle.
Life on the bridge has strange twists and turns. One day, the bridge is buzzed by aircraft that strangely leave messages in the sky, in braille (should it be Morse code?); and a few days later barrage balloons appear, apparently to protect the bridge against further attack. Like many parts of the book, this appears to have no particular relevance to the plot, unless to give weight to the idea that governments frequently exaggerate external threats for political reasons. In fact, the real-life Forth Bridge was similarly attacked at the start of World War II; something Banks would have known about because his father was a naval officer and worked at the Rosyth naval dockyard, the real target of the WWII bombers.
He stows away on a train, which travels far along the bridge to a war zone. Plenty of blood and gore occurs, but there are humorous passages too. The author’s imagination runs wildest in this area.
Finally, he comes out of his coma, and I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens. Perhaps the ending is a bit trite. One member found this last page had been torn from his second hand bookshop copy. Perhaps its owner thought the ending not worthy of the book.
What did we think of it all? It is a work of vivid imagination and rich description, plumbing the psychological depths of alienation. It was his third book (published in 1986). Later, he was to move into science fiction, and we see the start of that sci-fi interest here (he clearly had much fun writing about the invented dreams, the balloons, the flying knife, the war). The real life scenes, based in Edinburgh and Fife may be by contrast rather flat; his imagination comes into play when he deals with adventures on the bridge. The book is said by most reviewers to be a love story, but its power is not really in romantic matters (although the two sex scenes are some of the most interesting you’ll ever read). The love story takes second place to the adventures on the bridge; but the dreams are riveting; the characters in the consulting room are reminiscent of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, the 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The situation that John Orr encounters on the bridge reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. The psychological parts are both Freudian and Jungian, and at one point the author makes reference to RD Laing, author of works on the existential analysis of personal alienation, and the classic 1960 book on schizophrenia The Divided Self.
The division of the book into geological sections plus metaphormosis, metamorpheus and metamorphosis is not very helpful, possibly pretentious. What are we to make of them? Alex begins as a student of geology – the geological periods used as section headings are Triassic (250 to 200 million years ago) and Eocene (56 to 34 million years ago). Possibly something can be read into this. The Triassic was a time of transition after a particularly nasty mass extinction. The Eocene saw the dawn of a new fauna with modern mammals and the rise of grasses; but really, what’s the point? Of course, Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, so therefore a bit more relevant.
Is the work to any extent autobiographical? His father was a naval military man and his mother was a professional ice skater. What impressions did they make on him? His early life was spent in North Queensferry, in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge. Viewed from close quarters, we all agree that the bridge seems massive, oppressive, and the giant girders are unforgettable; even from a distance the raw engineering structure is awesome, iconic, likely to leave a deep impression on practically any young lad. The author was a young man when Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, otherwise known as Faslane, became home of the Trident nuclear submarines (the Peace Camp was established in 1982): this may have helped to form his left-leaning politics, and sparked an interest in the alienated state of mind and the defence of the state, both themes in the book. After writing the book his life seems to mirror that of the fictional Alex. He collected fast cars, he had a car crash, he had an interrupted personal life. His characters like to rant about the politics of the day just as he did for much of his life (he was an active supporter of Scottish Independence, hater of everything to do with Margaret Thatcher and he campaigned with others to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq). I’m sure these things will interest his biographers (he died of cancer in 2013).
His place as a major literary figure in the English speaking world is assured. Perhaps he will be best remembered for his first novel, Wasp Factory or for his science fiction. But The Bridge will challenge, amuse, and intrigue readers for years to come.