The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A very funny debut from Banks, who has now become one of the UK's most respected and established writers. It's raw, but it's very, very naughty and very, very funny. However, it does lose a little in time and place and perhaps you'd need to have lived through 'Thatcher's Britain' to fully appreciate it. If you did, it'll speak volumes to you, as it did - and does - to me.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 1992
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 0349101779

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Frank, a physically deformed young man in his mid-teens, lives with his father - an eccentric man to say the least - on a remote Scottish island. Frank is not your run-of-the mill adolescent; he announces from the outset that he is a three times familial murderer with the throwaway line, "it was just a stage I was going through". Frank's distasteful personal habits and strange, obsessive daily routines are gruesome yet hilarious in the darkest kind of way. As his father hides away in his study, up to no good, Frank embarks upon military campaigns against rabbits and sacrifices wasps in his own warped version of the Delphi Oracle, The Wasp Factory. Tension rises as Frank waits for Eric, his older brother. Eric is a charming chap who has taken to setting fire to dogs. He has escaped from a secure mental hospital and is on his way home. Given Frank's own weird, fetishistic existence, this is an extremely worrying prospect...

The Wasp Factory is a sort of whodunnit, howdunnit, whydunnit, all wrapped up in a thick coating of outrageous black humour. Re-reading it after many years this week, it still made me laugh aloud. It is just so... gruesome! I love the style. Admirably sparse and spare, it is full of short, sharp, acidic and very funny throwaway lines. And it rattles on apace. Just a short little book - under two hundred pages - you could read it in an afternoon. Frank's amoral adventures are really quite sickening and you will need an appetite for the sort of dark comedy that verges on the pornographic. There are rude words, gory scenes, rude bits and some quite revolting cruelties to animals. I wonder if it is quite the ticket to admit to liking this sort of satire in public, but I do like it, for it does have some points to make.

To set those points in context, it is important to remember that Banks wrote the Wasp Factory during the Thatcher years. It is his first novel and he was a young, rebellious man when he wrote it. I was a young, rebellious reader! And so, unsurprisingly, it read then very much as a satire of social exclusion - Frank even lives remotely, in a cold, lonely area. This exclusion leaves him isolated also from a normal moral code. The Wasp Factory may be a funny book, but it was, then, also a pessimistic one, perhaps a warning of the things that could happen in a society that has ceased to care for its unfortunates. As the current Booker winner, Vernon God Little speaks volumes to the No Logo generation, The Wasp Factory spoke volumes to those who hated the wholesale disenfranchisement of those Thatcher years.

Taken out of its political time and place, The Wasp Factory suffers a little. The Grocer's Daughter is gone and today the book's readers lack a target for all this venom. Without this relevance, its effect is reduced, and somewhat blunted. Some of it seems just plain sick. And without the background, the book's cult status seems somewhat undeserved. It is a funny, rude tale about unpleasant, peculiar people, but to a noughties audience I would imagine that it sounds like a hollow vessel making an awful lot of rather pointless noise. However, what is left is still technically good and has that energy and vitality so often associated with first novels. It does have flaws and it is a bit rough round the edges, but it makes up for this lack of polish with an unmistakable enthusiasm for the task.

I guess ultimately, The Wasp Factory is a kind of extended Tales of the Unexpected with an added Shock Your Granny factor. As such, it will appeal probably more to the young. It is certainly a step up from those other yoof cult classics, The Dice Man and American Psycho (why does anyone like these two books? They are both dreadful) but, in retrospect, it is not as good as its contemporary "competitor" and other first novel, The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. Neither, despite its shock value, is it as good as many of Banks' later works. Of those, I would recommend you to start with Espedair Street.

The Wasp Factory is rude. It is twisted. It is funny. It is not for the fainthearted. It probably isn't the cult classic its reputation would have you believe, but it is worth reading, if only for the embarrassed, squirming, guilty giggles. We also have a review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks.

You might also appreciate Tomas by James Palumbo or The Holy City by Patrick McCabe.

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lhine said:

Years since I read this but it sounds right. I remember it as brilliant black humour, not your average read but if you are not easily offended you will enjoy it.

Jacquie Longden said:

I also read it as a teenager in the 80's and actually bought it again and re read it about 2 years ago as I remembered it as such a good read.

Agree with the reviewer - but the brilliant thing the Wasp Factory did for me, was set me up with an appetite to read other of Iain Banks' books - which I thoroughly enjoyed too!



Rick said:

Being an American and in my 30's during the Thatcher - Reagan years, I can appreciate Jill Murphy's opinion on time and place. However, this is still a stellar first published novel. Being a voracious reader all my life, I cannot recall a fictional book that I had to put away at times, just to digest the content. It is both shocking, creepy in a strange way, quite disturbing, and extremely well written for a young writer.

Being an Iain M. Banks fan of his Culture series for many years, I'm glad to have found this in my local library. The literary world will miss Iain's contributions.