There are some writers we are told we must read. Iain Banks is one of those writers. He has long been on my list of those to get round to reading and in any interviews I saw with him, he came across as a very passionate, reasonable and likeable fellow. His premature death was greatly mourned in the world of literature and the wider arts. So I was determined to read at least one of his books. When I asked for recommendations I got several answers along the lines of “[all of them]” though when people were more helpful, they homed in two of his early works, The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road. So on a pure whim, I opted for the former.
I knew nothing about the plot, only that the book was described to me by others as being not only brilliant, but also weird and rather disturbing. It was said to be unlike anything that I would likely have read before.
Upon reading, I would say that is partly true. The story is told in the first person by Frank, a teenager verging on becoming an adult, though he recalls incidents from earlier in life, which help us to get a view on a very twisted individual. The reason I say ‘partly’ is because if one imagines a child half way between the protagonists of Catcher In The Rye and American Psycho then you might not be too far off. As it’s written on the back cover, it is no great spoiler to say that he has murdered 3 people, all while he was under the age of criminal responsibility.
But Frank’s not the mad one in the family. Oh no, that title belongs to Eric. After all, he was the one who set fire to the dogs and who has just escaped from an institution. It is this escape that provides the impetus for the book’s narrative. Mostly, it is told in flashback, with Frank recalling the details of how he killed his three victims and of how Eric got to be how he was.
In so doing, what Banks presents us with is a work of a hugely twisted imagination. One wonders about someone’s mental well-being if they had such an imagination to think this all up. In truth, though, I think it takes someone who recognises the potential of the depths of darkness that can dwell within in the human soul and who can handle that to be able to dissect it as Banks does. Because for this appears a novel about a disturbed teen, there is more than meets the eye. The Wasp Factory of the title is hinted at early on, but remains quite enigmatic for most of the novel, but when we see what it is, we get an excoriating critique of what Banks sees in religion.
There are other critiques and layers that Banks piles on. All throughout the novel, in addition to the disturbing episodes (and there was one scene where I put the book down it was so disturbing – for those who’ve read it, I will just say ‘maggots’) there was something else amiss. I tried to put my finger on it, but missed the clues that in retrospect were there, but which only fully revealed at the end. But for the sake of those who’ve not yet read it, I will leave that for you to discover. It is by no means an enjoyable book to read, that’s the wrong word to use. But it is certainly a fine work of fiction and I look forward to discovering more of Banks’ work.