Publisher: Abacus (1990)
ISBN: 0 349 10178 7
Précis: Graham Park is in love. But Sara Ffitch is an enigma to him, a creature of almost perverse mystery. Steven Grout is paranoid - and with justice. He knows that They are out to get him. They are. Quiss, insecure in his fabulous if ramshackle castle, is forced to play interminable impossible games. The solution to the oldest of all paradoxical riddles will release him. But he must find an answer before he knows the question.
Park, Grout, Quiss - no trio could be further apart. But their separate courses are set for collision...
Summary: Induced into attending a party by his friend Richard, Graham is entranced by Sarah Ffitch who is also attending the party. In a curious kind of way the two connect that night and begin a friendship, although Graham hopes it will develop into more. Steven Grout, however, has been fired from his latest job in a fashion that most decidedly indicates that They are behind it. He knows that They are monitoring him all the time but he had hoped that he might have eluded their attention for a small time. Instead They inflict the microwave gun on him and torment him further.
Unable to take this for too long, and in attempt to salvage some dignity from the situation, he stalks off quiting before they can fire him and begins heading home. Quiss however wishes that returning home were so simple, sentenced to the Castle as punishment for his actions during the therapeutic wars he is now caught with Ajayi (also sentenced here for misconduct during the same wars) playing interminable games where the rules are not known to them and often their pieces are hidden. Playing a game to completion allows them an opportunity to try and answer the riddle of what happens with the unstopable force meets the immovable object.
Progress with the games is slow, not helped by his squabbling with Ajayi (she and he seemingly unable to agree on much) and the long explorations of the Castle that Quiss conducts. Such explorations reveal little more than the solidity of the strange place and do little but torment Quiss more. Torment, however, has continued for Steven Grout who now finds that his attempts at dignity saving maneuvers have now resulted in the unemployment office beaureacrats being unable to help him and indeed, obviously under instuctions, they subject him to questions not befitting his status.
Extricating himself from that situation he returns home again to cheer himself up by examining the evidence thet establishes his otherworldy status and the presence of Them. Cheered up by this he then resolves to celebrate his birthday by going out for a drink. Celebrating is far from what Graham wishes to do, alternately elated and then confused at the actions of Sarah. They go on walks together, have picnics but just as Graham feels things might be begining to progress nicely something happens to make him doubt all that.
But his spirits soar when Sarah finally invites him around to her place for a meal, after weeks of not inviting him due to allegations of her being tailed by a suspicious detective hired by her recently ex-husband. Ecstatic that this might be the change in fortunes he has been waiting for Graham prepares for the rendezvous keenly. Keen frustration is about all Quiss is feeling though, two attempts to answer the question have resulted in failiure.
Worse than that Quiss has discovered a dreadful secret about the place, what happens to the game players who give up. On top of that he has observed signs that the castle is extremely old, something that when combined with the Castle Senchal's comment of no one ever having succeeded at the games leads him to deeper dispair. After first being frustrated at his attempt to kill himself by Ajayi he smashes the game table preventing them from playing more games and leaving them with just one answer left to give. However inside the table are four books that Ajayi begins to read, perhaps containing the answer to the riddle in their depths.
Graham is not happy with the answer he has found. Sarah has revealed to him that she has been using him the whole time as cover for a more risky liason, oestensibly to fool the ex-husbands private detective into investigating Graham rather than dragging her real partner into the messy divorce proceedings. Deeply hurt, angry and quite despondant he heads home barely aware of his surroundings - including the acccident with the beer truck happening in the background.
Beer is what Steven has consumed large quantities of, having gone out wearing his special best occasions hard hat, to celebrate his birthday. Needing to urinate Steven entrusts his money and hardhat to a drinking friend who then reveals himself to have been tainted by Them when he disappears with Steven's money and hard hat. Feverishly hunting for his drinking friend Steven looks up just in time to see a beel barrel from the crashing beer truck strike his head.
Interned in hospital Steven now finds he has problems remembering events for long, other than a newspaper report detailing some high society scandal involving a brother and sister in an incetuous relationship, a matchbox with a riddle on it and that he likes stealing the game pieces from the elderly couple in hospital with him who play out in the garden...
Comments: A decidedly strange book this one, here the story weaves around itself in several directions - only towards the end revealing the relationship between the three people. Which is fairly tenuous in a lot of ways, indeed one of the main characters never actually meets any of the others yet plays a quite crucial role in making sense of things.
Given this complicated relationship you will hardly be surprised to discover that the book is equally complex. Chapters skip between the three characters and their respective worlds. Were it not for the linked nature of the stories one could almost argue that there are really three stories being told here. Grout's segment is a wonderful excursion into the realms of being paranoid. Told entirely in his dialect of terms and references it can take a little while to get used to the narrative style, but certainly it is nowhere as bad as either Bascule ('Feersum Endjin') or the Barbarian's ('The Bridge') particular dialects.
Quiss's story is perhaps the worst to follow simply because it is in such a surreal world that making coherent sense of it takes time. In particular pay attention to the details here, bizarre as the setting is by the end of the book it does make sense. That said perhaps the biggest flaw the book has, compared to other novels, is a lack of a central purpose to the story. Each of the individual threads, while connected, don't build to much more than their parts, unlike later novels.
Perhaps this novel can be regarded as Iain finding his way and testing his ability to write such a convoluted plot and still keep it tightly bound. Unfortunately I don't know if this is the case because the order in which he wrote the novels is often not the same as the order in which they were published. In many ways I suspect this book is the 'dummy run' for 'The Bridge' where all the techniques used in this novel come together in a very tight way.
Still while the book is, merely, a yarn it has to be said it is a good yarn, a very good yarn in fact. I enjoy the complexity of the linking and there is a great deal of almost incidental humour present throughout the novel. Grout's paranoid antics are the best example as you watch him take entirely normal situations and turn them all into his private conspiracy theory. And in Quiss' world there are great many sly references that enhance the reading as well as the more straight forward humour of situation he finds himself in.
All in all a good novel, if not quite the best that Iain can do.