The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

Image

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.

Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Image,
The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal with literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.