The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

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This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Iain Bans’ controversial debut novel The Wasp Factory. It is a sad anniversary, in that for the first time Banks himself who died of cancer last year, will no longer be around to celebrate it.

In truth such was the tabloid furore surrounding the book in 1984 that Banks, then in his twenties, did well to ever escape the book’s long shadow. It remains perhaps his darkest book and one that I (perhaps wrongly) hesitate to recommend to readers who have never sampled Banks’ work before, even though it was the first one I actually ever read myself. That said, it is still quite mild next to some books which have appeared since (such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). It is also still, alongside The Crow Road, one of Banks’ best and most famous works.

Banks was undeniably right to describe the book as a “dark comedy” though even though parts of the book (such as the reasons for his older brother’s breakdown) are deeply unpleasant. The main character Frank is undeniably deeply disturbed enjoying an isolated life with his retired ex-hippy dad, playing in a world of fantasy or fighting a giant bunny (a scene which actually appears to be based in the real world when activities around a rabbit warren get out of hand). But the wasp factory of the title isn’t a metaphor: it is a physical structure which Frank has built himself. And he is a killer. Grim though they are, Frank’s accounts of his murders are among the most memorable bits in the novel.

Throughout the book there are also subtle indications that something more is wrong with Frank. Unlike most teenage boys, he seems oddly repelled by women.

Thirty years on, The Wasp Factory remains hugely compelling from its odd unworldly opening to its very final line.

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Book review: The Quarry by Iain Banks

ImageYou may have heard already that The Quarry is a very sad book. It isn’t.

Well, okay. It is a bit sad. One of the main characters is dying of cancer, after all. It’s also very sad that the author Iain Banks was dying of cancer when he wrote it. This was apparently a strange and tragic coincidence. Banks was only diagnosed when he was quite close to finishing the book. It’s also sad that as he has now died, this will be his last ever novel. But the book itself is, for the most part, not a sad one.

The narrator is Kit. Kit is eighteen and lives with his father Guy in a remote country house which backs onto a quarry. Kit is in some ways like Frank, the “hero” of Banks’ 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory. He lives an isolated existence with his father and is very “different” from most other people. But there the similarities end. Unlike Frank, Kit has normal sexual appetites. He has Asperger’s or something like it, a fact not mentioned specifically until quite far into the book although obvious from the start. He is also (unlike Frank) not homicidal and his father is the one dying of cancer. The action centres on a farewell visit by a group of Guy’s old Uni friends, one of whom may or may not be Kit’s mother. There is also an added mystery (another “quarry” for the characters to search for). Where is a missing tape? Why is it so important and what is on it?

As he demonstrated with Stonemouth, Banks is good at writing about younger people. Kit is a convincing (socially disabled) teenager and even the other characters are well below Banks’ age when he died (fifty nine). Banks has always done reunions, piss ups and lively political discussions well and there are plenty here.

“Look me in the eye, you twat, and tell me you weren’t tempted to vote for him (Boris Johnson),” says one character. “Especially against Ken; you’re more of a Blairite than that lying, war-mongering scumbag is himself.”

Kit is also a master of HeroSpace, a brilliantly realised World of Warcraft-type game as convincing as any of the fictional games Banks created as a backdrop to Complicity, The Steep Approach To Garbadale or in the Culture novel The Player of Games.

The book doesn’t stint on the cancer either. Kit describes the disease: “Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing after a certain point, crowding out the bits you need to keep on living, if you’re unlucky, if the treatments don’t work.” This is as succinct and precise an explanation of cancer as any I can think of. Kit also muses that wiping another person’s bottom is (once one overcomes the initial disgust) more practical than everyone wiping their own .“I can’t see this catching on though,” he concludes.

This is ultimately a great send off for a Scottish writer as great as Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, a science fiction writer in the class of HG Wells and a political writer in the class of Orwell.

Iain Banks. You will be missed.

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Iain Banks : where to start?

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Iain Banks, who died this month, was one of my favourite writers.

In a career spanning twenty nine years, he wrote an impressive twenty nine books including the science fiction Culture books (as “Iain M. Banks”: his middle name was Menzies). To my sham, I’ve largely not read any of these though I would recommend The Player of Games (1987).

But, to the uninitiated, which of Banks’  “mainstream” novels is best to start with? Let’s take a look…

The Wasp Factory (1984)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

 

The first book Banks was published when he was still in his twenties and might seem the obvious place to start. Indeed, it’s the first Banks book I ever read, aside from the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas (which I didn’t enjoy).

Be warned though, while brilliant, this is a darker offering than any of Banks’ other books. Frank, the “hero” is a sexually, confused, isolated and, indeed, homicidal teen. His older brother enjoys setting fire to dogs and Frank himself lives in a superstitious dream world, many of his activities (which include fighting a real life giant bunny) are dictated by the factory of the title, a bizarre construction of his own. The book generated a tabloid furore and Banks did well to escape its shadow.

Fact: A stage version of the book has been produced and performed.

 

Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)

Both fairly outlandish books and Walking on Glass is not a total success. I would not recommend either book as a starting point. Yet The Bridge, dealing with the aftermath of a road accident, is one of Banks’ best.

Fact: Iain Banks frequently cited The Bridge as his own favourite of his own novels.

Espedair Street (1987).

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. “

A tale of rock and roll excess viewed from its aftermath by bass guitarist Dan “Weird” Weir of fictional band Frozen Gold. Despite the opening line (above), it is one of Banks’ cheeriest novels and an excellent place to start.

Fact: Banks admitted he did no research for this book whatsoever.

Canal Dreams (1989)

Banks recently said this attempt at a political thriller was one of the few books he was unsatisfied with. I would agree that it is a disappointing. I would argue A Song of Stone (1997), The Business (1999) and Transition (2009) also represent rare Banks misfires.

The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Banks’ masterpiece, a time jumping family saga centring on teen Prentice McHoan and his conflict with his atheist father and quest for his long missing Uncle Rory. The book spans fifty years ranging from Prentice’s own father’s wartime childhood to Prentice’s present. The usual dark humour, discussion of politics, piss ups, drug use and a murder mystery element are also thrown in. Brilliant.

Fact: A decent TV adaptation appeared in 1996 featuring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi (later of The Thick Of It).

Complicity (1993)

A rival to The Wasp Factory, for the title of Iain Banks’ darkest novel this centres on Cameron Colley, a journalist addicted to drugs, computer games and sex who finds himself suspected after a series of bizarre murders. Excellent.

Fact: A film version received a limited release in 2000. Most felt Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting), then in his twenties and best known for his marriage to Angelina Jolie, was too young for the main role.

Whit (1995)

Teenaged Isis leaves her small Scottish cult to explore the outside world. Plot-wise, a bit iffy, but an enjoyable book nevertheless.

Fact: Also known as “Isis Amongst The Unsaved”.

Dead Air (2001)

An intriguing premise; the main character is a left wing British shock jock DJ, but the novel feels a bit rushed.

Fact: One of the first novels to deal with the events of September 11th (an event cleverly evoked by the cover).

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

The Wopold family made rich by the board game Empire! meet to discuss their future. A return to form for Banks with similarities to The Crow Road.

Stonemouth (2012)

Stewart Gilmour returns three years after being chased out of his home town. Highly enjoyable.

My review of The Quarry (Banks’ final book) will appear shortly.

I am thoroughly enjoying it, however, and my only sadness is that there will be no more Iain Banks books to come. He was truly a great author.

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