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  • Alistair Braidwood

An Original Banksy: Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory @ 40...


A 40th anniversary edition of Iain Banks' debut novel The Wasp Factory, with a new introduction by Neil Gaiman, is published today (11/7/2024) so it's the perfect time to reflect on the book which introduced readers to one of the defining authors of the late-20th/early 21st centuries.


Between 2009 - 2014 I wrote a regular column called Indelible Ink for the much-missed Dear Scotland website, where every month I would write about a different Scottish novel. You can find all of those pieces collected on the Indelible Ink pages of this website, but I thought I would post an updated version of the one on The Wasp Factory to mark its 40th year...


 

Sometimes a writer comes along who is difficult to categorise, who doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Iain Banks was one such writer. Of course as Iain M. Banks, his other writing title, he was an out and out sci-fi novelist, but even that isn’t as clear cut as it at first appears. He was a writer who loved to confuse and confound and I think it pleased him that he was so hard to pin down. He was, to use the title of one of his ‘M’ novels, The Player of Games. For Banks, life was 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 Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, but there is 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, determinism versus free will, and more. 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 what was to follow.


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 unbearable, its effects felt 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 drug, and car, habits, and further immoderate behaviour. Banks uses such excess 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 on personal journeys, and along the way they must put aside the more base pleasures to fully 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 write 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. 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 fury 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 wonder if these passages are the sparks that precede the writing of the novels which then become the vehicle that carries those 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.

Iain Banks was one of Scotland’s most successful novelists, but I think he is also among 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 didn't appear to take himself overly seriously (as any one who ever tried to get a straight answer out of him will testify), but I think that was a front. You only have to read the novels to understand that this was a man who took the business of writing, and of living, very seriously indeed. And that’s how it should be. We often want writers to tell us what it all means, but why should they? It’s all in the book, as Banks would say. Focus on the writing not the writer, and The Wasp Factory is the perfect place to start.



A version of this article first appeared as part of the Indelible Ink series


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