Iain Banks’ ‘The Wasp Factory’
by Alistair Braidwood
Sometimes a writer comes along who is difficult to categorise, who doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Iain Banks is one such writer. Of course as Iain M. Banks, his other writing title, he is an out and out sci-fi novelist, but even that isn’t as clear cut as it at first appears.
He is a writer who loves to confuse and confound and I think it will please him to be so hard to pin down. He is, to use the title of one of his ‘M’ novels, ‘The Player of Games’. For Banks, life is an absurd game that we are all forced to partake in, a compelling puzzle that may have no solution, and this is reflected in his fiction.
This playfulness was obvious right from the beginning. When his debut ‘The Wasp Factory’ was published in 1984 it received as many brickbats as it did plaudits and Banks, in conjunction with his publishers, decided to include a selection of both to preface and advertise the book presumably in the belief that all publicity would be good publicity. Here’s just one of those critiques that show the strength of feeling the novel provoked:
‘As a piece of writing, The Wasp Factory soars to the level of mediocrity. Maybe the crassly explicit language, the obscenity of the plot, were thought to strike an agreeably avant-garde note. Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.’ The Times.
Such a view was by no means unusual. It’s difficult to think of another novel which split reviewers so dramatically. Perhaps there is a case for Brett Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’, but there is much more substance to Banks’ novel and those critics should have been able to see past the gothic and gore and understand the philosophical and social commentary that runs through the book. Banks deals with questions of family, gender nature versus nurture and determinism versus free will. What some dismissed as a sensationalist novel was actually very serious indeed, and this mix between the sensational and the serious set the template for all his fiction.
That’s not to say that it is an easy read. There is one scene in particular, set in a hospital morgue, which is almost unreadable and can make you feel ill long after the page has passed. In many ways Banks is a writer of excess be it sexual, violent or horrific. In the novels that followed there is S&M, torture, expensive car habits and expensive drug habits. Banks uses excessive behaviour to sidetrack his heroes, (or heroines; his female characters are almost always stronger than their male counterparts) from their quest to be better, more enlightened, people. His protagonists are all on personal journeys, and along the way they must put aside the more base pleasures to follow their paths. This quote from the end of ‘The Wasp Factory’ backs up this idea of a personal quest: ‘Our destination is the same in the end, but our journey – part chosen, part determined – is different for us all’. One of Banks’ central themes is ‘you might not be able to save the world, but you can try by beginning with yourself’.
This is a difficult book to discuss in the usual fashion. Normally when I talk about a novel I would mention the actual text and plot but ‘The Wasp Factory’ contains a spectacular twist which I worry I’ll spoil by talking specifics. I can say that it is about an unusual family, the Cauldhames’ who live on a small Scottish island and that ‘The Wasp Factory’ of the title is a device built with the specific purpose to torture and kill wasps while trying to predict the future. The rest I’ll let you discover for yourself. If this seems odd then you’ll have to read the book to understand why. In a way this is the ‘The Usual Suspects’ or ‘The Sixth Sense’ of Scottish novels. Like those films the twist at the end of ‘The Wasp Factory’ is not the key to enjoying the book, but it does force you to reassess what you have just read. It’s no exaggeration to say that when I read it for the first time I went back and started again to see how many clues I could find. I still read the last chapter if I have a spare 15 mins as it is an incredible piece of writing. ‘The Wasp Factory’ was Banks’ first literary puzzle.
But you would be mistaken in thinking that he is simply making mischief. His games and puzzles only barely hide his anger, and sometimes fail to altogether. His novels have varying levels of anger driving them, from the comparably mild mannered ‘Walking on Glass’ to ‘Complicity’ which is seething with rage. Often there is a passage which is an out and out rant against a specific political or social problem. I often wonder if these passages are the sparks that precede the writing of the novels. They then become the vehicle that carries his views, and the characters become the mouthpiece, and sometimes avenging angels, of this apparently mild mannered man. In this sense the mainstream novels are as much fantasies as any of his sci-fi output.
Banks’ is a writer who embraces the new. His last novel ‘Transition’ was serialised as a free podcast in an attempt to reach a new audience and he was never content with just writing fiction. His book on whisky ‘Raw Spirit’ is one part travelogue to two parts social commentary. He also took part in a very short series, the Songbook Series, which had novelists compiling CD’s of their favourite music. (Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Barker and Robert Crumb also partook in the venture) Here’s one of Banks’ better choices. This is Richard Thompson with ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’:
Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful novelists, but I think he is also the most under appreciated. The more sensational aspects of his writing seem to overshadow the serious moral, social and political debates that are to be had, and that is a great shame. Partly this is because he doesn’t appear to take himself overly seriously, as any one who’s ever tried to get a straight answer out of him will testify, but I think that is a front. You only have to read the novels to understand that this is a man who takes the business of writing, and of living, very seriously indeed. And that’s how it should be. These days we want writers to tell us what it all means, but why should they? It’s all in the book, as they used to say. Focus on the writing not the writer.
In very different way Iain Banks is as much of a social commentator as James Kelman. Both write to bring attention to perceived injustices in the world, and attempt to move the reader into action or at least empathy. If you’ve avoided Banks because you thought he was ‘fantasy’ or ‘sci-fi’ then I would ask you to reconsider. Just because a writer can spin a good yarn doesn’t mean that they’re not important and worthwhile, something we often seem to forget. Iain Banks; ‘he means it, man’.