Mass Media

BOOK (1984)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 July, 2010, 12:00am

The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks
(Macmillan)

It's easy to pinpoint the sentence in Iain Banks' Gothic shocker that made me want to put the book down: 'I slit the buck in the anus.' It comes around page 35.

In that sentence, its arrest, and the precise depravity of the action it portrayed, was the portent of everything loathsome the novel held. That I didn't, or couldn't, put it down is mundane praise for Banks' first and seminal work. The Wasp Factory is more than a page-turner. It's a study of an obsessive psyche that is relentless in its horror and devilish in its fascination.

Banks, born in Fife, Scotland, was 30 years old when he produced his debut. Critics were uniformly appalled, but seemed torn between condemning the author and congratulating him. The Scotsman observed 'a note of maniac, utterly over-the-top humour' that rescued the story from being simply sick: 'You can't laugh and throw up at the same time.' The Times hated it ('Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish'), while later, the Independent would name The Wasp Factory one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Banks is best known as a writer of science fiction. If none of his ordinary fiction again reached the heights (and depths) that The Wasp Factory did, it may be because Banks approached his first work as one of fantasy. In a preface to the 25th anniversary edition of the novel, Banks wrote of the partial defeat The Wasp Factory represented. His earliest science fiction manuscripts - Banks produced three between 1974 and 1979 - continued to be rejected and in 1980, the yet-to-be published author conceded to a change of tack.

Unwilling to shed the genre entirely, Banks said he aimed for something that resembled science fiction. In The Wasp Factory, he explained, 'The island could be envisaged as a planet, Frank, the protagonist, almost as an alien'.

Frank Cauldhame is 16 years old. He is weird, lonely, violent and a vessel of self-imposed secrets. He lives with his father on a remote 'nearly-island' in Scotland. The plot is driven by Frank's brother, Eric, who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital near Glasgow. He was placed there following a breakdown. Eric, now a dog-murdering lunatic, is on his way home.

The wasp factory, the thing itself, is a feat of grisly invention. Its role is that of a god, a guiding entity worshipped with devastating wrong-mindedness by a child who is its creator and its sole disciple.

The book will not panic you; it is too controlled for that. But Banks' universe, forged on that colourless, windswept island and inhabited by a cast of grotesque barely humans, indicates a sense of the world and of humanity that is frighteningly total, and totally frightening.