Iain Banks, one of my favourite authors, died earlier this week aged just 59. The world has lost a literary genius. With that in mind, it felt inappropriate to write about any other author’s work this week. This isn’t a proper review, more just a collection of thoughts on Banks’s most famous work.
I’ve never really enjoyed science fiction, but I’m a big fan of most of Iain Bank’s non-scifi novels. The Wasp Factory was his first, and I think probably his greatest (though it’s a close call between this and the rather different Whit).
The Wasp Factory tells the story of Frank, an adolescent living with his eccentric single father on a Scottish island. Frank’s brother is in a psychiatric hospital. Frank himself is, to say the least, severely maladjusted, taking part in bizarre sacrificial rituals of his own making, and expressing negative emotions through extreme violence, and occasionally murder.
It’s a modern Gothic character study, with such evocative description in some scenes that they evoked a physical response in me – and I think this is the only book I’ve ever read which has had that effect. Frank serves as the psychologically flawed first-person narrator, which provides for the deeply disturbing normalisation of grotesque horror, but also for perhaps the darkest and funniest moments of black levity in any of Banks’s books.
This is a novel which really rewards re-reading because of the number of different levels on which it plays, and the number of themes it explores: power and abuse, psychiatric illness, identity, and loneliness to list just some of the more prominent. There is a “big twist” at the end of The Wasp Factory which might discourage re-reading, but, in fact, the knowledge gained from the ending sets out a whole other level for the reader to explore within the narrative. I’ve read it quite a number of times, and have read individual passages even more.
This was also the first book I gave to Wendy, some time before we started dating. In hindsight, it may well be one of the world’s least romantic books, but it evidently didn’t put her off me too much!
The edition I have is also unusual for displaying quotes from reviews that are highly critical of the book, alongside the more positive ones. That felt like a brave yet endearing decision. It’s probably also a fairly successful marketing ploy: I can’t remember a single one of the cover quotes from any other books I’ve read, yet can remember some from this volume which I first read well over a decade ago.
The Wasp Factory is only a couple of hundred pages long, but it’s a couple of hundred pages that’s stayed with me for a long time. If you haven’t read it before, I hope that you will. It stands as testament to the genius of its creator, who will be sorely missed by legions of fans.