Friday, October 11, 2013

A sting in the tale

As summer reads go, it's safe to say that The Wasp Factory wasn't exactly jolly, frothy, light-hearted entertainment. Reading it poolside in France and then later back home on the bus journey to and from work, I found myself regularly having to either either turn away from the page in horror or scrape my jaw off the floor in much the same way as I did after watching Dead Man's Shoes...

Like Shane Meadows' film, and indeed the works of his compatriot and admirer Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks' debut novel is about as dark and intense as it gets - and yet the grotesquery is taken to such exaggerated proportions that there's an unnervingly comic streak running through what is a striking account of obsession, depravity and destruction.

Most of the book's initial reviews - whether admiring or, as was often the case, not - recognised this, and it's significant that Banks and his publisher Abacus chose to preface the edition I have with write-ups of all critical hues, in much the same way that Stewart Lee routinely includes both positive and negative comments on posters for his shows. The effect is to underline the novel's controversial nature and reception, but fundamentally its power to elicit strong feelings among readers who, whether they love it or loathe it, are unlikely to find it forgettable. (Of course, it also leaves those reviewers dismissing it as artless trash looking rather foolish, in light of Banks' subsequent literary career...)

Having read the novel, Kirsty Wark's question to the late author in his final interview about where the dark stuff comes from makes more sense. In life Banks came across as an affable, polite chap who refused to take himself too seriously - not the sort of person you'd imagine might write the more lurid scenes of The Wasp Factory. But then the same has been said about Bret Easton Ellis, and, as Will Self pointed out in a piece on the latter in Junk Mail, it's very unwise to identify an author too closely with his creations.

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