It is interesting to go back to beginnings. Iain Banks is too well known to be introduced – his website even says so! Despite his fourteen literary novels, in many circles he is arguably better known as science fiction writer Iain M Banks. I don’t read much science fiction but I particularly enjoyed ‘The Player of Games.’
But back to beginnings. ‘The Wasp Factory’ (1984) was his first published novel. I have just finished a celebratory edition emblazoned with the cover information ‘the book that announced a genius.’ In a Preface to this edition, Banks is generous in his reflections and revelations about his beginnings: his first novel that never got typed up, the sprawling 400,000 word beast that was finally ‘wrestled to the ground’ and went nowhere, and the three science fiction novels that couldn’t find a publisher either. And then came ‘The Wasp Factory’ and his genius was finally recognised.
Science fiction is all about world creation, and though ‘The Wasp Factory’ is not science fiction, the world created is alien and one hopes, just as made-up. Perhaps it can be described as a coming of age novel. Frank, the narrator, is a teenager. He learns something about himself. In tone, it has more in common with Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ (1993) – and I don’t think that is just the Scottishness of it – than J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (1951) which was controversial when it was published but seems almost sweet in comparison.
I was tempted to call this post Severed Heads Part 2. Frank has circled the tiny island he lives on with scary poles, topped with the severed heads of rabbits and mice. His own smeared blood, and a quick piss around the bottom, adds to the totemic defences. Frank is dispassionate in his description of his three murders, all committed before he was ten – it was just a phase he was going through. The methods of killing are ingenious. Can you admire methods while being appalled? The victims were also his age.
Under all the surface level violence is the store of cordite in the cellar of his house, and his brother Eric who has escaped from a lunatic asylum and is on his way home.
Let that sink in. His brother is the crazy one.
Not to give anything away, as ‘The Wasp Factory’ is well worth reading, the ending is even more explosive than the foreshadowing suggests.
I don’t mean to keep reading violent books. But you never know what you are going to get when you pick something up. Which is a big part of the pleasure of course.
The image of the wasp caught in amber is by George Poinar Jr.