CategoryBanks Iain

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.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

 ***

And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…

Transition (2009) by Iain Banks

transition2

When I first got my copy of Transition, I took a quick glance at the beginning, and grinned at what I found. The epigraph reads, ‘Transition – based on a false story’; and the opening sentence is one of the most endearingly cheeky I’ve ever come across: ‘Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get.’ That’s the start of an Iain Banks book, and no mistake.

Well, now I’ve read the whole thing, and am I still grinning? No, unfortunately — not because Transition is a bad novel (it isn’t), rather because it promises much but doesn’t manage to come together to deliver on that promise.

Unbeknownst to most people, there is a multiplicity of realities out there, each with its own Earth. A few people, known as transitionaries, are able to move their consciousness between realities, temporarily taking over other people’s bodies in the process; most of them work for the Concern, a vast organisation whose (apparently self-appointed) task is to intervene secretly in the realities to ensure that good things happen and bad things don’t — this might mean (for example) saving the life of someone who will go on to make an important discovery, but it can also mean ‘eliding’ undesirables if necessary.

The structure of the novel mirrors the idea of ‘flitting’ between worlds, as it moves back and forth between the stories of a roster of protagonists (some narrated in first-person, others in third-). But perhaps the main protagonist is Temudjin Oh, one of the Concern’s assassins, who must decide whom he trusts: Madame d’Ortolan, the current leader of the Concern’s Council, who’s given him orders to ‘elide’ several prominent Council members who are (allegedly) threatening the Concern’s stability; or Mrs Mulverhill, the renegade transitionary (and Oh’s former lover) who maintains that Madame d’Ortolan has her own hidden agenda, and is the real threat. Other narrators include Adrian Cubbish, a City trader from our Earth taken on by Mrs Mulverhill; and the mysterious Patient 8262, who has hidden himself away from his pursuers on some obscure world — he remembers being a transitionary, but has been here so long that he’s having doubts.

As you’ll have gathered, Transition is a complex edifice; but Banks is eminently capable of holding it together. He marshals the different plot strands and characters skilfully, such that we become disoriented but never hopelessly lost; and his control of voice is great in particular. There are secrets to be revealed, of course; but the effect is more jigsaw pieces joining together than layers of onion peeling away; more is told and less implied than perhaps one would like, but Banks never stalls in his telling.

Now for the ‘buts’. As the pages recede, one starts to think that Banks is cutting it a bit fine with the resolution. Too fine, it proves: a character named in the prologue but not properly introduced until 60 pages before the end provides a deus ex machina, shortly after the plot has become a fairly straightfoward chase. Not a great way to wrap up a novel.

There are some passages which consider ethics — is what the Concern does worth it? do their methods make them any better than the people they work against? — but I find them ultimately quite superficial; I don’t see these concerns worked through in the text itself. However, I think it’s quite clear what judgement Banks makes, what with the morality-tale way certain characters get their comeuppances.

There’s a larger-than-life quality, too, to the characterisation. The Concern seems fond of elaborate balls and fancy dress, and Mulverhill and d’Ortolan in particular feel more like figures in a parade than ‘real’ individuals. The other Concern characters are relatively more rounded, but not a great deal more; and even Adrian Cubbish is pretty much a stock ‘unsympathetic City boy’. I am quite willing to believe that Banks intended this effect; but I don’t think it encourages serious consideration of the issues underpinning his narrative.

I’ve spent more time talking about the negative aspects of Transition than the positive; yet the positive aspects probably occupy the greater part of the text — it’s the nature of the negatives that makes them such an issue. But, bearing these objections in mind, you’ll find Banks’s novel interesting and engaging for the most part.

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