Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

February 8, 2009 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments
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Note: While moving the archives from my old review site, I found that this review had somehow slipped through the cracks after being written and never made it on to the old site.  I’m not sure when I wrote it, but it was probably in 2004.  Think of it as bonus material, like a deleted scene.

Why is it that you read fiction? What do you want to get out of it? Wasp Factory is a book that has forced many to question their reasons and motives for reading, and any book that forces people to reconsider their unconscious assumptions and think about what they have otherwise taken for granted is probably close to being great literature. The fact that I strongly doubt this was Banks’ intention cheapens it a little bit but ultimately the work must be judged outside of the author’s intentions.

Perhaps I am not giving Banks enough credit, but I don’t think so. Like many of Banks’ subsequent novels the book combines a horror novel’s gore with a mystery novel’s shock ending with the quality of writing you would expect from a Serious Author. Unlike many of Banks’ more indulgent later novels, Wasp Factory features a tighly written, very personal first person narrative. Where Catcher in the Rye meandered, Wasp Factory zooms at a breakneck pace from its beginning through its story and to its conclusion. The only trouble is, where Catcher in the Rye tried to be about adolescent cynicism and coming of age, Wasp Factory tries to be about…well…

And there’s the rub. Apparently when it came out it was quite controversial as it was perceived as almost the literary equivalent of a snuff film. To my modern not-so-sensitive sensibilities, the book is certainly dark but hardly worthy of outrage. Nevertheless the critics had a point: the reader is dragged through the mud of a criminally insane mind and at the end of the journey it is not at all certain they will feel like it was worth the trip. I’ve heard it accused that Wasp Factory is outrageous because it wants to be; that young would-be authors in Britain find that being offensive is a good way to get noticed. This may be true, although Banks’ later work is close enough in tone and spirit to Wasp Factory that I doubt he was doing it just to cash in. The difference, however, between Wasp Factory and the later Banks book that it most resembles, Use of Weapons, is that where Wasp Factory exists solely to paint an image of its protagonist, Use of Weapons paints an image of its protagonist while also covering ground in philosophy, politics, and humor. It’s no accident Use of Weapons, despite being almost as dark and taking place in the distant ultratechnological future, feels much more human. This difference is exemplified in their titles. Wasp Factory‘s namesake is a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays no real role in the story. Use of Weapons‘ title alludes to a theme that runs throughout the book–and in particular to a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays an enormous role in the story.

I’ve been comparing this book to others so much one more comparison won’t hurt. Wasp Factory is perhaps most similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but where the latter work was both disturbing and educational because the condition described was real (and the author, who worked with autistic children, was at least qualified to describe it) in Wasp Factory the narrator’s mental state is arbitrary because not only does it seem unlikely that a real person could have such a screwed up childhood but even if someone did Banks isn’t qualified to speak to the results.

I would recommend Wasp Factory to fans of horror or amateur criminal psychology. It’s also probably worth reading for curious fans of Banks’ later work. Some people consider it a masterpiece, but I suspect most will consider it at best diverting.

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