As many of you who know me, know, I am a eagre booster of Comrade Iain Banks and his fine output of novels. To those who read science fiction to any extent, you will know him, and perhaps praise him, though I know there are many revilers out there, with reasons understandable, for disliking Iain M. Banks, author of bestselling novels, by science fictional standards, Consider Phleabas, Use of Weapons, Inversions, Matter, The Algebraist. To the more hoighty-toity types out there who must have their literature with a capital L, a group I can sometimes be included as well, Iain Banks is known for his ‘classics’ of a odd fiction like Dead Air, Complicity, The Crow Road and….The Wasp Factory, his debut novel and one of the nastiest and most unsettling pieces of fiction I have yet to read. Much nastier, and shocking than much written by that Chuck fellow…what was his name, whose outrage mongering seems a tad forced of late. Ahem. I like The Wasp Factory, but this essay isnt exactly a panegyric, or a summary; the post below reminds that reading the book first is a good idea. Besides, panegyrics are boring, though hardly dead if one bothers to read biographies or the newspaper, and the real meat ofThe Wasp Factory, besides all the murder and brutality and delightful black humour is its take on what is called in academic shorthand ‘the construction of gender’.
That gender, our shared social understanding of what men and women, and those in our minds caught in between, is constructed is not much in debate nowadays, at least amongst many of the more ‘intellectually’ motivated. The list of feminist scholars and theorists, amongst many others who have questioned how ingrained in our bones, bodies and genes the social activities of sex is a very long one indeed, and I won’t go into it here. Likewise, the grotesque and its relationship to the body, that grotesque equals disharmonious (to borrow from The Prisoner), both for good or ill, especially as described by Mikhail Bakhtin (an It-theorist if there ever was one in English studies) and others after him, is important here, but not crucial. I’ve tried to go light on the theory; not because theory is bad, per se, but they do tend to bore non-academic audiences who might actually give a hoot.
I also hate to spoil the endings of books, but in this case knowing the ending of The Wasp Factory is absolutely necessary to an understanding of the book’s themes.
Spoilers abound ahead: you have been warned.
UPDATE: I just learned two days (August 21) that Iain Banks linked to this essay, which is a great honour. I’ve cleaned the essay up a bit, at it been published shortly before a long move, but it remains mostly the same, just more readable, hopefully.