Monday, 11 July 2011

Classics Corner: The Wasp Factory

Yes, classics corner. It isn't really. What it is is an excuse to post this old review I did while at uni of Iain Banks's Wasp Factory. I was clearing out some paperwork and came across it. It's always weird looking back at pieces you wrote ages ago, the writing just seems very stilted and amateurish. And so wordy. I do consider The Wasp Factory to be a genuine classic- if you haven't read it, don't let my cloddish review put you off- it's fantastic and you should give it a go. We were given it to read for A-level and it was just something I immediately loved, unlike other 'literary' texts which are held in high esteem but are dense and unaccessible (whattup Peter Carey). Review below:

Iain Banks's Wasp Factory is a modern day gothic horror novel. It contains all the codes and conventions one expects of gothic writing, in that it carries an atmosphere of morbidity and dread, it is peopled by stereotypical charcters-the good, the wicked, the insane, the evil and the victims, and that the humour- where employed- is deliciously black. The gothic aims to explore the dark side of human nature; the deep desires and urges, the appetites and drives that society needs to suppress. By placing his central character and protagonist on an isolated island, Banks gives him the opprtunity and berth to do just that. However, through the medium of gothic, Banks deals with issues such as identity, paternity and normailty, and the more modern and topical issues of gentic engineering and sexuality. By using an adolescent as his protagonist and choosing to deal with such up-to-date issues, Banks succeeds in creating a novel which is a hybrid of gothic and modern day morality tale. It also boasts a fantastic last sentence clanger of a twist which leaves the reader reeling.

The novel, written in the first person perspective, begins as a narrative reminisence by am adolescent, 16 year old Frank Cauldhame, describing his childhood and all that remains of it, whilst gradually and subtly slipping into a depiction of contemporary events as it develops. Frank, with his obssessive cleaning rituals and macabre sacrificing of animals, seems to distinctly unbalanced, aview that appears to be unshakably proven in the carelessly off-hand way in which he discusses his murderous past, 'Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I'd diposed of Blyth, and then a year fater that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three, I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.' Frank's descriptions of events such as killings, is both direct and matter of fact. The calm and detahced form underscores the very mundanity of evil which Banks is writing about. This madness, juxtaposed against Frank's 'normal' side- as seen when going out drinking with his friend Jamie- provides a somehat contradictory image of Bank's central character.

Iain Banks
It is a convention of gothic novels to initiate the reader into a world of mystery and darkness and Banks does this by revealing very little, very slowly about Frank, his life and the reasons he is the way he is. Much of the first half of the novel then, is slightly cryptic as Frank refers to incidents and events without explanation, thus leaving the reader in the dark. Is Frank a by-product of society's prejudices, judgements and ignorance,. coupled with his father's meddling with nature, or is he just quite simply insane? Certianly his thoughts are lucid, succint and incredibly intelligent. Frank's obssession with ritual and the form of things is used by Banks as a way of dealing with his own sceptical views on organised religion. The Wasp Factory of the title is a sadistic killing machine Frank has devised for the purposes of divination. He also has a series of 'Sacrifice Poles' erected on the dunes of the island on which he and his father live; attached to the poles are the dismembered corpses of the creatures which he has killed during the course of his day-to-day activities. The Sacrifice Poles are both talismanically protective and divinatory in intent.

Ostensibly, though, this is a political novel wrapped in the form of a horrific bildungsroman. It was written during the bleaker days of the Thatcherite reinvention of Britain as a corporate plc. Banks, an acute writer, explores the situation with a caustic eye. the first paragraph of chapter four makes the political dimension to the novel explicit: 'Often I've thought of myself a s a state; a country or, at the very least, a city. It used to seem to me that the different ways I felt sometimes baout ideas, courses of action and so on were like the differing political moods that countries go through.'

The novel orients itself around the nature and abuse of power and trust- in this case parental power and trust. Banks is saying individuals have the capacity of self-deception and the decption of Frank by his father is a central theme. This is accentuated in the wonderful final chapter of the book when new facts come to light, overthrowing most of what has previously been said, and the reader is forced to completely re-assess the opinions formed about the narrator.

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