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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.