The Wasp Factory
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And so, somewhat unexpectedly, my fifth ever long(ish) form blogging project starts up a week before my fourth. The fourth even has a title and everything. Whereas this one… doesn’t, because I hadn’t been planning on starting it until mid-April at the earliest. And perhaps more to the point, this is very much an exploratory project. To date, the Iain (M) Banks novels I’ve read are this, Player of Games, and Use of Weapons. So I’m still very much drawing a critical bead on him. I’m not even entirely sure I can articulate why I want to write a ten-plus post blog series on the Culture novels yet.
Nevertheless, it begins here, with Banks’s first published novel, in his literary, M-free identity, The Wasp Factory. It is worth noting that Banks’s early career features a mildly complicated chronology. The Wasp Factory came out in 1984. His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, came out in 1987. But drafts of Phlebas and the next two Culture novels, Player of Games and Use of Weapons, all pre-date The Wasp Factory.
Which is to say that the broad shape of Banks’s career is misleading. He has said that he always considered himself a science fiction writer first, and that he tried his hand at literary fiction when science fiction wasn’t quite working out for him. And more to the point, he’s said that he inwardly thought of The Wasp Factory as a science fiction novel. As Banks explained in a 2008 interview, the isolated setting of a small island near a remote Scottish village allowed him to treat a realist setting in a manner not unlike an alien planet, and the, shall we say, eccentricities of the protagonist, Frank, meant that they was not entirely unlike writing about someone from an alien culture.
But in the context of his later work, or at least, in the context of the bits of it I’ve read, there’s another theme that emerges – one that I’m willing to hazard a pretty strong guess is going to prove to be one of Banks’s major topics across his career, which is the idea of people as technology. The big twist in The Wasp Factory is that Frank, who goes through the book thinking that their genitals were bitten off in a dog attack when they was young, is in fact a woman who has been being given male hormones by their father throughout their life as part of what their father drunkenly describes as an “experiment.”
A digression here, because although I don’t actually find the trans issues most interesting about this book, I know what is expected of me as a blogger. First of all, let me say that I wish to hell there were some thorough trans perspectives on The Wasp Factory. I can’t find any significant ones on a quick Google though. I suspect there’s loads of stuff I’m going to miss.
So, first of all, let me justify my choice of pronouns based on the plot. Frank identifies as male up until the final chapter of The Wasp Factory, at which point, having found out what their father has done, they identify as female. However, this final chapter takes place only a few hours after they have found out what’s happened to them – there’s a change from past to present tense in it that clearly positions the entire act of the novel’s narration to a precise moment in the plot. Given the enormous psychological complexity of what happens to Frank, I think treating them as having a definite gender identity at the end of the novel is enormously dicey. On top of that, treating it as a work of literature, using the female pronoun for Frank is fundamentally misleading for the purpose of engaging with most of the book, where Frank’s embrace of a male identity is enormously central to what’s happening.
But I am very much reading against the novel there. While I’m hard-pressed to complain that the book ends too abruptly, it’s hard, especially in 2015, not to feel like the complexity of what has happened to Frank is wildly undersold. Beyond that, there’s a really weird and strong sense of gender essentialism to it that’s not entirely pleasant. This is not necessarily a surprise. Indeed, you can fairly treat it as historically determined. The book is over thirty years old. Trans issues were in a very different place in 1984. Were this book published today, its reception would be very different – for one thing, I guarantee you that a major and acclaimed novel coming out in 2015 that handled gender issues this way would have a hell of a lot of trans perspectives on it.
But equally, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the last chapter is by a considerable margin the weakest part of this book. The degree to which the ending hinges on a sort of “gosh, I’m actually a woman” twist is symptomatic of the degree to which the entire resolution is rushed and slightly contrived. Frank’s sudden change in gender identity is used as a pretext for the rejection of the entire worldview that he held throughout the novel, which in turn serves as a final comment on it, with the central metaphor of the wasp factory (an elaborate method for the ritual execution of wasps that Frank uses for the purposes of divination) explicitly rejected in a nice, stirring statement of what the world should be like. Its all very easy and certain and gives Banks the opportunity to engage in auto-critique and to declare the themes of his novel with a sort of writerly insecurity that screams “I have never had a novel published oh god oh god please don’t misunderstand me.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that for the most part, what is interesting about The Wasp Factory is the buildup to this ending, and the points at which Banks’s themes are still unstated and left to implication. The earlier parts of the novel are, to be certain, more interesting with the knowledge of the ending, in particular Frank’s numerous comments on the inherent and essential nature of gender. (“Women, I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands – of films and television programs, cannot withstand really major things happening to them; they get raped, or their loved one dies, and they go to pieces, go crazy, and commit suicide, or just pine away until they die.”)
Which brings us out of our digression and back to the theme. What’s interesting about The Wasp Factory is that it is, in effect, an extended meditation on the psyche and experiences of a character who has been designed and built for a particular purpose, and who serve as a sort of social technology. Banks clearly has a real fondness for characters of this sort. But what’s interesting is that he doesn’t generally find himself all too interested in the social processes that create such people. How Frank got to be the way they are is certainly dealt with, but it’s a chain of narrative contrivance with minimal practical application to the world. The existence of this book means that violent folk magician Scottish kids on remote islands who have been forcibly regendered by their parents are, on the whole, statistically overrepresented in literature. This makes it difficult to read The Wasp Factory as a book that’s particularly about why Frank is the way they are.
Which also means that The Wasp Factory, despite its ending, is not particularly invested in criticizing or rejecting who Frank is for most of the book. The reader is meant to understand the ways in which Frank is an unreliable narrator, but they’re just as much meant to be bleakly amused by the matter of fact descriptions of the three childhood murders Frank describes. Similarly, the reader is not meant as such to enjoy Frank’s descriptions of blowing up, shooting, and generally torturing animals, but equally, the underlying animist logic by which Frank shapes and understands the landscape of the island and his relationship with it is always coherent.
So what we get in the end is a novel that isn’t quite the coming of age story about an angry young white man that it first appears to be and that it acts like for most of its page count. Which is good, because the world doesn’t actually need more coming of age novels (or arguably any other sort) about angry young white men, and although Thatcher’s Britain was as good a time for writing about angry young white men as has ever existed, the world had reached its saturation point on the subgenre by 1984. The fact that The Wasp Factory, at the last moment, veers away from being that and instead becomes an active subversion of that is, at the end of the day, a very good thing.
But The Wasp Factory doesn’t quite capitalize on its own subversion. It rejects what it pretends to be without ever actually becoming something else. For that, I suppose, we have the rest of Banks’s career.
February 3, 2015 @ 1:53 am
The Wasp Factory remains one of the few books that has managed to sicken me so much I had to put it down, and go seek out other people's company for a bit. The passage about the baby in the hospital still gives me horrors.
That aside, you can certainly see the links between Frank and Zakalwe from Use of Weapons, and the shock ending of both is, well, a shock.
February 3, 2015 @ 4:59 am
I agree. That image of the "smiling boy" has stuck with me since I read this over fifteen years ago.
I remember being very impressed with the novel when I first read it, although I imagine that I would be less so if I read it now.
February 3, 2015 @ 9:55 am
The baby scene does tend to stick in the mind.
February 3, 2015 @ 9:59 am
Feb 9th is so close. . .I'll miss this blog.
February 3, 2015 @ 11:06 am
If you're looking for a title for this series of posts I'd suggest M theory.
February 3, 2015 @ 12:48 pm
I've gotta admit, I've never read this and don't intend to. I read about it and I thought "I totally respect his right to write it, I think the Irish Times is over-reacting hugely and I'm sure it has great literary merit, but personally? No thanks."
February 3, 2015 @ 9:54 pm
Does this have some ancillary relationship to Doctor Who, Moore or Morrison that I've missed, or is this an independent endeavor? Should, in any case, be interesting, since I know nothing whatsoever about Banks' work.
February 4, 2015 @ 1:01 am
I've no exact idea why, after nearly two years of happily lurking and just taking in The TARDIS Eruditoriumm I feel compelled to comment on this, of all things – I certainlt wouldn’t say I’m a Banks expert.Then again,
I grew up in Scotland in the 80s and 90s and, as a voracious reader, naturally consumed a lot of Banks as a natural part of that life process so there are a few thoughts floating around my head about it.
So er hello Phil – big fan, and all that… an interesting take on The Wasp Factory.
I first read it in 1993 during my Sixth year at Secondary and was not remotely aware of the trans issues in the novel (or a lot of things I have since made it my business to improve my knowledge and awareness of) – there just wasn't that much debate or discourse on it – or rather, much debate or discourse where I could access it! Thinking about it now makes the book, charitably, very much of its time and possessed of a major blind spot. Instead of an aspect to be properly explored though the identity of the character, Frank's gender is a cheap gimmick or twist – both a major shortcoming and a missed opportunity.
Back then, The Wasp Factory reminded of ‘The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler’ a novel I read in primary school, in which the school tearaway is revealed to be a girl in the last chapter, though I think the book was actually much more progressive on that issue, than the Wasp Factory itself in that the 'twist' comes from the way the novel deliberately pulls on our gender associations and expectations.
But I really came to think of The Wasp Factory as a deliberate subversion of certain sacred concepts in Scottish writing, bequeathed by the writers of the early 20th century Scottish literary renaissance and sustained, somewhat beyond their shelf-life by their various disciples. This is because I read the Wasp Factory at the same time as we were reading Neil Gunn’s ‘Highland River’ in which a young fisherman’s son Kenn finds delight in his local landscape and through it, enlightenment and self-knowledge (Gunn was a Zen Buddhist, by the way). The year before we did another novel, Sunset Song, in which ‘the Land’ was presented through its female lead character as a mitigating feminine principle in the Calvinistically-bisected Scottish psyche (always good for a laugh) and the true balancing element in her sense of identity. So given that my experience of the Wasp Factory was sandwiched between these two things it was hard for me to resist interpreting it as a gleeful perversion of the themes in the set texts we were reading at school.
That may not have been completely a result of my literary fatigue though – what happens when Frank engages with ‘the land’ seems a distinctly dark form of enlightenment through the landscape, based on exerting and imposing control. All of which reminds me as I write this, of the post on the Tenth Planet, Qlippoths and dark mirrors – though I may just be surfing on a wave of allusion at this point… I also, never thought of it as incidental that Frank and his family are landowners at a time every rich bastard seemed to be treating themselves to a Scottish island at the time and land reform (a big issue in the Highlands of Scotland) was a long way off.
Then, in early ‘94 I first read James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, with its doppelgangers, brooding landscape, fractured identities, multiple unreliable narrators, gothic horror and Presbyterian mind-fuckery, and realised that was a much stronger precedent for Banks' – imperfect – commentary in The Wasp Factory. But perhaps The Wasp Factory is really all about those mirrors, in the sense that like Frank, Banks is trying to work out his surroundings and what sort of control he can, or should, exert on them?
February 4, 2015 @ 6:30 am
It certainly has a relationship to Doctor Who, albeit a tenuous one: the People of the Worldsphere were intentionally created as the Doctor Who version of Banks's Culture. But it's a new project, as Phil says, just like the upcoming Game of Thrones thing.
February 4, 2015 @ 7:57 am
February 4, 2015 @ 8:52 am
Banks clearly has a real fondness for characters of this sort. But what's interesting is that he doesn't generally find himself all too interested in the social processes that create such people.
I'd agree with this: there's a great 2008 podcast from the Guardian where Iain Banks is interviewed specifically about The Wasp Factory ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2008/jul/16/guardian.bookclub.podcast ) which I think you refer to and in it you very much come across the idea that what Banks was looking for in The Wasp Factory (and quite possibly throughout his fiction) was the complicity of the reader. A procession of horrendous events unfold, yet we are asked to sympathise with the protagonist. The final "twist" is, I feel, designed to wrong foot the reader, not give great psychological insights into Frank.
The interview sidesteps questions of transgenderism, although Banks himself says that while talking about the events of the past (i.e., everything before the ending of The Wasp Factory) he finds himself referring to Frank as he, but when asked about the future of the character Banks swaps pronouns. the closest he comes is in saying he likes to think of himself as a feminist. His views can be ascertained from his Culture novels, however, a society he describes as his perfect fantasy society which he would like to live himself. The inhabitants of The Culture possess the ability to change gender at will (albeit the process takes a long period of time) and the only people who ever seem to have a problem with it are usually antagonistic societies outside The Culture.
The interview linked to above is quite a fascinating one: Banks seems to dislike overanalysing his characters- at least once he comments on how one interpretation of Frank is quite Freudian, and expresses a desire not to continue with down that route.
He comes across as very much like Steven Moffat (and not just in his accent): he is witty but self critical. He also admits in The Wasp Factory to the same flaw as Moffat with Girl In the Fireplace, in being frightened that his audience will get bored so constantly putting in something to hopefully keep them interested. Banks is also similar to Moffat in producing Puzzle Box stories as opposed to mysteries. Amusingly, in one of his final interviews he admits to have fallen out of love with Doctor Who in it's present incarnation, which seems to indicate he wasn't that great a fan of Moffat's writing. Having said that, his main problem with Doctor Who in 2013 was the amount of rules it possessed. Something he'd said before about Dtar trek, and I feel very revealing about his approach to writing.
I did like your essay, Phil, but would possibly suggest putting the novel in some form of context outside of Banks' career. Banks himself says in the interview above that The Wasp Factory grew out of the same sense of literary movement as Ian Mcewan and Martin Amis, and definitely has literary antecedents in Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe. And descendants in Irving Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk.
February 4, 2015 @ 10:24 am
I think this must be one of the "final interviews" you mean: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/15/iain-banks-the-final-interview
The relevant passage, for the convenience of anyone who was as curious as I was:
…Banks is off already, talking 19 to the dozen, brandishing a handkerchief with a Cyberman on it (a present) and saying, "You know, I've fallen out of love with Doctor Who, at least in its present incarnation. I just can't get along with it. People have suggested I should write for the programme, but, ach, I just couldn't. I might have been hopelessly naive but I hadn't realised there are just so many rules when you write a Doctor Who story, like the monster has to go back in the box at the end."
February 4, 2015 @ 3:33 pm
Of course! I'd never made the connection between The Wasp Factory and Hogg's Justified Sinner before, but now that you mention it I recognise the commonality of feel and theme.
February 4, 2015 @ 3:49 pm
Blog-related but not post-related: an anarchist replies to the claim that Alan Moore is objectively right-wing: http://c4ss.org/content/35426
February 4, 2015 @ 11:55 pm
It's a much re-written novel – in the late seventies Emma Tennant re-wrote Justified Sinner with female characters as 'The Bad Sister'. I suppose Banks did something similar gender-wise, but with less success – at least on aesthetic grounds. Commercially Wasp Factory did way better!
February 6, 2015 @ 11:47 pm
Yes I absolutely will too, this has been a cornerstone of my morning reading for years now.
February 6, 2015 @ 11:52 pm
"what happens when Frank engages with ‘the land’ seems a distinctly dark form of enlightenment through the landscape, based on exerting and imposing control. All of which reminds me as I write this, of the post on the Tenth Planet, Qlippoths and dark mirrors"
As a Scot myself who went through all of the reading list that you did Dialectomitch, I completely agree. And brilliant suggestion in the quote above linking the themes with Phil's posts about the dark side of Enlightenment and how that connects to Frank. Great comments for a first time post!