BOTH Iain Banks and Janice Galloway made a huge impact with their first novels and carried on from there in richly varied and unpredicted ways. John Berger once wrote that the great virtue of art is that it teaches us not to want more but to want better. Taking up the challenge of acknowledging the “risky desires” all of us have and combining them with a sympathetic understanding of what we might call our “natural needs” (both masculine and feminine), Banks and Galloway each take us along very different roads and in various directions. Do they have anything in common? Let’s see.

The astonishing literary debut of Iain Banks (1954-2013) came with The Wasp Factory (1984), starting his career with one of the biggest bangs in modern literature. His publishers were astute to open the paperback edition of 1985 with three pages of extracts from both good and bad reviews. The Sunday Express described it as “a silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics” and the Evening Standard said it was “a repulsive piece of work” yet The Financial Times called it “A Gothic horror story of quite exceptional quality”. The Mail on Sunday hedged its bets: “If a nastier, more vicious or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised. But there is unlikely to be a better one either.”

After that, what next?

Each of Banks’s “mainstream” novels is distinct and different, commenting obliquely on traditional genre fiction. Science fantasy is folded into Walking On Glass (1985); in The Bridge (1986), surely one of his best novels, a comatose young man reviews his life up to the point of his disastrous car crash, while struggling to get out of his terrifying dream world. It’s Kafkaesque, and also reminiscent of William Golding’s Pincher Martin, but primarily it’s an adventure, a kind of “great escape” story. The happy ending twists the sense of despair into a welcome, triumphant yet also ironic tone (“Lie back and think of Scotland”). The relation between dream and actuality becomes the source of the book’s tension. Espedair Street (1987) focuses on the world of rock music and a reclusive musician in Glasgow: urban realist comedy collides with the biography of a rock star at the end of his career, and at the start of another kind of life. Canal Dreams (1989) is an eerie mixture of exotic espionage thriller and hallucinatory horror fiction.

His most ambitious novel is The Crow Road (1992), a family saga of national identity, exploring issues of social class, individual psychology and sexuality. A broad range of eccentric characters over two generations of the McHoan family centres on Prentice, a Glasgow University student whose investigations into his family’s past lead him to the solution of one of its darkest secrets. The Crow Road is a murder mystery, a black comedy, an infuriating love story, a tale of a young man growing up, a dynastic family saga and an exploration of the relations between dream and actuality. It was made into a wonderful four-part television mini-series broadcast on BBC Scotland in 1996.

Complicity (1993) brings the brutally competitive aspect of modern Britain into focus with an apparently ruthless main character obsessed with fashionable drugs, high-speed cars, and sado-masochistic sex. Banks’s world comes from the era of Margaret Thatcher and John Major: another awful episode of Conservative Party UK rule. Later novels include Whit (1995), an “innocent abroad” fable; the unrelievedly grim war story, A Song of Stone (1997); satires on criminality and commerce such as The Business (1999) and Dead Air (2002); and further family sagas, The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007), Stonemouth (2012), and The Quarry (2013). Other works include Against a Dark Background (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), The Algebraist (2004) and non-fiction: Raw Spirit (2003) and Poems (with Ken MacLeod) (2015).

Banks developed a series of vast science fiction novels, which he described in a 1990 interview as “space operas”: Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), Against A Dark Background (1993), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998), Look to Windward (2000), Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010) and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Banks noted: “Space opera works on a broad canvas, it gives an impression of the operatic where some science fiction might feel like a small ensemble … Yet in a way I am just trying to tell a yarn. There’s all this space paraphernalia, but you can paraphrase the story as just being about a ship-wrecked sailor who falls in with a gang of pirates and goes off in search of buried treasure ...” Or in other words: “Robert Louis Stevenson ‘somewhere out there’.”

The National:

Let’s go back to The Wasp Factory for a moment. It’s an anti-pastoral of island life. The main character, the adolescent Frank, presents us with an inverted idyll. He takes us on a number of lurid childhood adventures, including encouraging his baby brother to beat an unexploded mine with a wooden stick (effectively murdering him), and sending a young cousin on a fatal flight across the North Sea attached to a home-made kite (effectively murdering her). Frank behaves like a cool-minded hooligan but retains the appeal of a gentleman murderer (think of Dennis Price in the marvellous 1949 film, Kind Hearts and Coronets). He tells us in Chapter 7: “All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in. The strong make their own patterns and influence other people’s, the weak have their courses mapped out for them. The weak and the unlucky, and the stupid. The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern ...”

So what is the Wasp Factory?

Over half the novel is spent working up to the moment when it is put into action. When it comes, it might seem an anti-climax but it has a quietly potent symbolic significance. The Wasp Factory is an enormous clock-face, placed flat in the attic of Frank’s house and redesigned as a maze for live wasps. Once introduced, a wasp has to follow any one of a series of options, all of which lead to its death (by drowning, electrocution, a carnivorous plant, or other means). Each death is variable and open to the creature’s momentary choice. Symbolically, it’s a platform upon which mortality plays itself out. But the clock-face itself comes from an old Royal Bank of Scotland building. Frank discovered it in the town dump. It is, you might say, malevolent time – but it also suggests the idea of Scotland itself as a maze, as a discarded unit, a lapsed state, a mortality trap.

And both Banks and Janice Galloway are enablers of reclamation from such lapsed trap-states.

The National:

Five years after The Wasp Factory, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989), the first novel by Janice Galloway (b.1955) made an equally impressive but very different kind of impact. In the novel, various careful experiments with typography and narrative structure at first appear flamboyant but in fact deepen the reader’s understanding of the central character, Joy Stone, and her predicament. Her anguish, breakdown and recovery constitute both a detailed account of a personal crisis and a radical critique of the social conventions that have overtaken us all. The immediacy of the typographic devices have their effect. The conventions and conditions they alert us to have saturated our society even more thoroughly since the 1908s. The compassion and growing strength of resolution of Joy and of Galloway’s writing itself continued to develop, enduringly impressive. As John Berger suggested, she teaches us how to want better.

In Clara (2002), Galloway portrayed Clara Schumann, composer and pianist, her relation with her husband the better-known composer Robert Schumann, and the pressures exerted upon her. Again, the intimacy of personal detail as the portrait builds up is weighted and deepened by a sense of the stifling social conventions she lived under. Clara remains Galloway’s most ambitious novel and a major achievement. It might be read literally, in terms of the biography and history of the Schumanns, but any particular story has its universal resonances and any work of literary art has metaphoric significance. The novel is not only bristling with feminist priorities but assured in its grasp of complex social and musical contexts. With no overtly Scottish components, Clara is arguably Galloway’s most profoundly Scottish novel, as, unencumbered by literal Scottish locations or characters, the metaphor of oppression and the struggle for meaningful artistic creation is intricate, subtle, and immensely powerful in the Scottish context of its time of publication and place of continuing circulation and readership.

THE centrality of creativity, both in composition, performance and simply in the daily life of the imagination, is at the heart of these and all Galloway’s works, the short stories in Blood (1991) and especially through the novel Foreign Parts (1994), in which two women, Rona and Cassie, explore questions of identity, humour and culture while on a driving holiday in France. The writing is equally lucid and compelling in Galloway’s family portraits of domestic tensions, hurt and survival arts in her “memoirs”, This Is Not About Me (2008) and All Made Up (2011). Further stories are collected in Where You Find It (2007) and Jellyfish (2015).

Both of these writers bring characters whose lives are blighted and oppressed into our understanding and prompt us to give of our sympathy. And sometimes, more than sympathy: imaginative support. The remarkable thing is not only that the appeal succeeds so much but that they help us understand more deeply the need to exercise such sympathy and give such support. It’s a natural need. Yet there are also these “risky desires” depicted in the writings of both Banks and Galloway, yearnings and hopes for, frustrations and oppressions of, and sometimes assertions and violent insistence upon those things that would make our lives more fulfilled: ultimately qualities of self-determination. These are what make us human after all. To hold back from a world in which touching and understanding are necessities only guarantees the withdrawal and repression that drives us to the divisions and despair that have become so horribly familiar since their first novels were published. These writers, each in his and her own way, are liberators.