Breaking into the Business by Being Really, Really Disturbing

waspfactory-small.jpgDisturbing as hell, an elegantly constructed first-person plunge into the mind of a maniac, a teenager who murdered kids when he was a kid (and got away with it), and now has elaborate rituals that mostly involve killing small mammals. As a first novel, that’s one way to make a splash – The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is a debut from 1984, famous for its controversial events and intense narration. I’m always a little suspicious of controversy though – is the book worth anything outside of the scandal associated with its “shocking” content?

There’s not much of a mystery at the beginning of the book as to the
mental instabilities in our narrator, Frank Cauldhame, and the basic reasons why he does what he does. Many
of his family members have committed suicide and his older brother is
incarcerated for burning people’s dogs in the nearby village. Apart from the
genetic issues, he’s also been poorly socialized – he has never been to
school, raised alone by his father on an isolated island (a little
heavy on the metaphor in that particular case, but an effective setting
in a literal sense). And like most males in a story like this, he has, to put it as politely as possible, “lady issues”. He talks a lot about hating women and so forth.

As I said, the book is elegantly constructed. I have no complaints about the polished nature of the writing – The Wasp Factory is an assured work that skirts most of the problems associated with first-person narration. That is to say, Banks never screws up the tone of the book – we always believe we’re in the head of a highly disturbed and dangerous young man. Interestingly, some of Frank’s sadistic nature is mirrored in the structure, by which I mean that he teases with shocking revelations about his past, just like writers are trained to do whether their books are in the first person or third.

The Wasp Factory is the first in a long line of so-called mainstream books written by Banks (more details about his career in a moment), but I think it’s more productive to read it as a genre work, of horror perhaps, or an item in the tradition of A Clockwork Orange. I’m not the biggest fan of horror, but I think Banks knew enough about genre to work the references effectively. Since 1984, he’s also written about a dozen highly-respected science-fiction novels.

waspfactory-big.jpgConfession time: I’m basing my comments on about half of the book, and I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I’ve heard that the book has a “shocking twist” at the end and I must say that this makes my already waning enthusiasm plummet to near zero. Of all the tricks in the writer’s toolbox, the twist is the one that’s very low in my estimation. I grant that it can be memorable; witness the career of M. Night Shyamalan (whose propensities are best described by Robot Chicken’s “What a twist!” segments). Memorable does not necessarily equal “favourable memory” though.

In addition, I’m ambivalent about Banks’ work, so a few words about his career might be in order at this point. I tend to go through a big enthusiastic phase when I’m reading an
author; sometimes this fades away quickly, and I only revisit
occasionally afterward. I read
all of Banks’ sf works (published as Iain M. Banks), and a few of his mainstream ones (published without
the middle initial), about a decade ago (author site is here and bibliography here for a clearer picture). Banks is fiercely imaginative in his sf work, and I would call Feersum Endjinn one of the more interesting achievements in the field.

But as soon as I decided to take a look at
his first novel, The Wasp Factory, I could see direct parallels with a particularly unpleasant science fiction book he wrote called The Use of Weapons. In that book, two storylines lay out the disturbing emotional baggage of the main character: one storyline moves forward in time, describing his current actions; the second storyline moves backwards in time, gradually closing in on a shocking event in his past. This event is indeed memorable, but I’m not glad that it’s lodged in my brain. Hence my wariness about something that’s ostensibly even more shocking, in the case of The Wasp Factory.

I dunno, I guess the whole idea of making a splash by being really, really disturbing worked for Banks, but I distrust it at a basic level, in terms of a book that’s worth reading. I’m not arguing for bland books that don’t rock the boat or similar. It’s more that when the apparatus of shocking people, with or without a twist ending, becomes such a large proportion of the work at hand, I tend to tune out.

2 replies »

  1. Hi James,
    Your take on the book reminds me a little of that genre of middle-brow fiction in which everything is based around how horrible the suffering of the protagonist can be, sort of the opposite of how awful they can be, in this case. Both rely on you suffering along as a reader, either in sympathy with or as a victim of the narrator. While this style doesn’t necessarily preclude talent on the part of the author, it does eliminate any interest on my part. That said, I enjoy a good story with these elements, just not one that relies too much on shock and twist and “Oh, the suffering!” I’ve got enough icky real-world crap in my head.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Weed. I think that Banks is a pretty clever writer, so even if we are “victims of the narrator” (nice phrase) in this book, his subsequent books improved greatly.
    Contra my comments in the earlier part of the review, I did end up finishing the book. Yes, he duly notes, there was a twist ending. Lady issues indeed! To say more would be to spoil, and it turns out be a fairly effective little shocker of a novel for all my earlier dislike. Don’t see myself re-reading it at any point though.


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