Monday, August 12, 2013

Everyone's damaged: Iain Banks's THE WASP FACTORY

I tried an Iain Banks novel a few years ago, Matter, one of the Culture novels from Banks's SF side. I didn't get far, as I don't care for "court" dramas if they aren't Shakespearean, and a glance at the glossary at the book's rear told me I had a lot of learning to do if I was going to fully appreciate the book's world. As this is one of the elements that keeps me from enjoying Tolkien, a directory to another world didn't entice me.

With Banks's death two months ago, I wanted to give this respected writer another try, so I went with The Wasp Factory, his first novel, a sample of his non-SF side (though the book has a fantastical feel).

This book is a compelling narrative that works for most of its length, has some ragged moments near the end, then makes the mistake at the very end of explaining the message it wants you to have.

Frank Cauldhame was maimed in a way we only have fully explained several chapters into this short novel—though even then, we have to wait for an even fuller explanation. His maiming doesn't seem, at first, connected to the other events of the novel: his odd treatment by this father; the insanity of his brother, who, escaped from a mental institution, is headed home; his own history of violence; the mechanisms and charms by which he holds his world together. All of these elements are interconnected more than they first appear, though some of the connections require a fantastical leap—which is fine, given the narrator's tone. Some components of the story don't feel believable—a rabbit attack which turns into a mini-war stands out, though some of the murders seem to lack logistical logic—but everything and everyone in the novel is so damaged, the quirky plot doesn't come off as quite so unhinged as it otherwise might.

The plot moves between Frank's strange daily activities( enacting his bloody personal religion on his island home, playing by himself on the dunes, getting drunk with a buddy), his preparations for the arrival of his AWOL brother, and the horrifying bits of backstory with which Frank gifts us. We know it's all heading toward a bad scene. In fact, what's odd is how Frank isn't that worried about his brother's potential for chaos. Even when he has truly disturbing phone conversations with Eric, Frank insists that he loves his brother and wants to see him. I don't quite buy it. I also don't buy the relationship with his dwarfish drinking buddy, as Frank comes off as an adolescent; Banks never makes us feel that Frank is of age, and the scenes of him in a bar seem to involve another character.

Frank's father knows that Eric has escaped, but he doesn't know Frank is in touch with him. The obvious crisis toward which the book moves also turns out to move the novel into the foggy past, finally bringing clarity to the event that—in some ways, but not all—triggered everything terrible that would follow.

It's a fine first novel, captivatingly told, though grim going and, again, not managed smoothly at the end.


Calvin said...

I read this novel many many years ago, when I was in college. I don't remember much except thinking it almost sadistically dark. It's possible I missed a lot.

But it did keep me from really trying his SF novels. I should go back now and try them. Linguistic tricks don't bother me (Tolkien fan here).

William Preston said...

Oh, it wasn't "linguistic tricks" of *Matter*, it was the extensiveness of the mythology and naming of unfamiliar things. After reading the first two chapters (the first was interesting, the second not), I flipped to the back and saw that there was this super-elaborate world and history that, to me, just felt exhausting, like I had to familiarize myself with all of that (which perhaps I didnt) in order to appreciate the novel.

Soon Lee said...

Banks is a favourite writer of mine, both with & without the M; it's all good.

You should give the Culture books another try, perhaps starting with "Player of Games", though "Use of Weapons" is also a good jumping-on point despite its unusual structure.

Of his non-M stuff, you should read "Crow Road" which has my favourite opening sentence to a novel: "It was the day my grandmother exploded".

William Preston said...

Ooh, that IS a good opening line!

Thanks for the recommendations. On my list they go!