Thursday, 1 May 2003

Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)

Edition: Futura, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1153

Out of all the editions of all the books I have ever read, the second and later printings of Iain Banks' first novel remain unique as far as I can remember for at least one reason. It is of course common to put good reviews on display, but here some of the really bad notices received by The Wasp Factory are also reprinted. The common feature they all share is a passionate response to the novel, which even after two decades (and on a third or fourth reading) is not one to be read with total equanimity.

Since 1984, Iain Banks has become established as one of Britain's most important novelists of his generation, and combines critical acclaim with a loyal cult following through his engagement with the science fiction genre. Reviewers of his writing today are inevitably going to be really careful before panning one of his novels. More importantly, though, The Wasp Factory seems far tamer and less controversial now, post Quentin Tarantino (among others). The extreme violence has become almost commonplace, and is no longer restricted to the grimmer types of genre novels. (It seems that what was shocking in The Wasp Factory was the presence of such violence in a novel with obvious literary pretensions.)

The narrator of the novel, Frank Cauldhame, has at sixteen settled into a bizarre existence on the small Scottish island owned by his reclusive father. His life there is a strange combination of unpleasant rituals of his own invention; these are designed to proclaim and extend his supremacy over the animals living on the island and to protect him against the outside world. Their centrepiece is the eponymous Wasp Factory, a monumental clock face rescued from the local town (just over a causeway on the mainland) dump which now has traps installed behind each numeral; a wasp is introduced into the hole at the centre and Frank uses the random death "chosen" by the wasp to predict the future. The story begins as Frank and his father receive a warning that Frank's elder brother Eric has escaped from a secure mental hospital, to which he had been committed after incidents including setting fire to dogs and forcing local children to eat worms. Eric's gradual approach to the island defines the duration of the novel and creates its suspense.

The effect of The Wasp Factory's violence on the reader is not just ameliorated by the time that has passed since publication. Because Frank's actions are mainly part of rituals, Banks is able to make him feel most of the time that what he does is regrettable though necessary (which affects our perception too, as he is the narrator). It is also invested by Banks with a kind of fantasy air, the unreality coming from the religious air which surrounds his actions when they are rituals or their flagrant unbelievability when they are not (as in the case of the rabbit attack, for instance). The most disturbing scene is the flashback to the experience which pushed Eric over the edge of insanity, and it is told in a much more straightforward style than the descriptions of Frank's activities. One thing is certain, and that is that The Wasp Factory never descends to the level of violence as pornography; everything which happends in the novel has its part to play. It is a lesson by which some more recent science fiction writers could benefit.

The Wasp Factory is neither as great nor as sordid as its quoted reviews imply. As a debut, it showed that Banks was a gifted writer, and most of his subsequent work has of course confirmed this. It is not by any means a fun read, but remains fascinating.

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