The Wasp Factory: Reading Iain Banks

If ever there were an author whom I wanted to go back and read from the beginning, it’s Iain Banks. I’ve read a few of his books over the years, but have never felt that I knew his work as well as I’d have liked. After the shocking announcement of Banks’s terminal cancer last week, there was an enormous outpouring of appreciation for his books, on Twitter and elsewhere (just look at his guestbook). This has spurred me on to start investigating Banks’s oeuvre properly.

One initiative that came about in the wake of last week’s news was the BanksRead forum, set up by my fellow book bloggers Alan and Annabel for discussion of Iain Banks’s work. I expect I’ll chip in there periodically, but my personal reading project is for this blog: I plan to go through Banks’s books in order, at the rate of one a month (we’ll see how it goes, but that’s the plan for now) – which means it’s finally time for me to read The Wasp Factory.

I saw Iain Banks at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2009, discussing his then-latest novel, Transition. His typically exuberant manner was very much at odds with the serious tone of the interviewer. I was reminded of this while reading The Wasp Factory because I started wondering how Banks’s debut might have seemed on its first publication back in 1984, how different it must surely have been compared with the rest of the literary scene at that time.

The Wasp Factory is narrated by the teenage Frank Cauldhame, who lives with his father on a remote Scottish island, and has a penchant for killing animals in inventive ways (he also killed three of his relatives when he was younger, but insists that was “just a phase”). The attic of the Cauldhame house contains the titular Wasp Factory; we don’t find out exactly what the Factory is until late in the novel, but we do know that it speaks to him, is important to him – and we can guess that it’s not going to be pleasant. Most of the novel is an exploration of Frank’s life and world; but there is also the plot hook that Frank’s brother Eric has escaped from his hospital, and is heading back home; his telephone calls to Frank punctuate the novel as indications that a reckoning is on its way – and we can guess that that won’t be pleasant, either.

Read in 2013, there’s still power in the vividness of The Wasp Factory’s violence (hiding a snake in his younger brother Paul’s artificial leg is just one example of what Frank gets up to); but I find myself thinking that I can’t make it “new”. I wish I’d read this book when I was younger, because I wonder what I would have thought of it. It strikes me as the kind of novel that, if read at the right age or in the right context, could change a person.

The edition of The Wasp Factory that I read comes with an introduction by Banks (dated 2008) in which he says that he thought of himself (as I believe he still does) as a science fiction writer first and foremost, even as he was writing The Wasp Factory: “The island could be envisaged as a planet, Frank…almost as an alien”. That kind of sensibility – a desire to confront and explore strangeness – is apparent all the way through the novel: Frank has his own personal geography for the island (with locations named after significant moments in his life) and his own way of looking at the world; there’s a gap of understanding for the reader to bridge, just as with a science fiction story.

Frank’s world may be unknown to the reader, but Banks also shows how much Frank doesn’t know about himself, how much he’s trapped in his own belief system. The protagonist is keen to deride Eric as an oddball, but is at the same time unaware of how idiiosyncractic his own thought and behaviour patterns are. Frank is not even as much the lord and master of his own domain as he thinks he is, as revealed by the closing twist.

Ah yes, the twist. I already knew what that was, because an audience member at the Cheltenham talk blithely gave it away in her question (“Hope that doesn’t spoil it for anyone!” cried the author). I didn’t mind – I’m not so bothered about knowing endings these days as I used to be – and it did let me see how Banks builds up towards the revelation. But, as I discovered, I actually only knew half the twist, and it led to some oddly dissonant moments when I tried to apply what I thought I knew to what I was reading. Of course there’s part of me that’s curious to know how I’d have reacted if I’d known nothing about the ending; but I don’t wonder about this as much as I do the original reception – I find the journey of the novel more powerful than the destination.

So, now I’ve read The Wasp Factory, what is my sense of the start of Banks’s career? From this remove, his debut feels like a prelude, but one with the promise of great things to come. I believe that the next two novels, Walking on Glass and The Bridge, are among Banks’s most highly regarded works; I’m glad to have embarked on this project, and am excited about its next stages.

3 Comments

  1. It’s years since I read “Walking on Glass” – I remember it as being an uneasy mix of SF and non-SF. “The Bridge” however is magnificent, Banks at his peak. Complex, multi-layered, descending into horror, wrapped up with a reconciliation and a happy ending. It features sections in phonetic Scots English, featuring a Glaswegian Conan-style barbarian hero (at least he sounded Glaswegian to my reading ear). I wonder if those sections offended people in the same way as the phonetic sections in “Feersum Endjinn” did?

  2. Ah, I’m glad you’re doing this, David. I’ve been meaning to read The Wasp Factory for so long now, but never got around to it. The two Banks books I’ve read are Complicity and The Steep Approach to Garbadale, both of which I enjoyed, but was also frustrated by some parts of them. I think that reading all of his work is a wonderful idea. I look forward to future instalments!

  3. I agree with Arthur on The Bridge, magificent is the right word.

    For me Banks is an ok literary writer, and a great SF writer. I’m glad that over time his SF has gained the wider recognition outside SF fandom that it deserves.

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