Monday, 17 June 2013

Review: The Wasp Factory


The Wasp Factory
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



A story of cruelty.

I wanted to read this book because I was curious about whether a writer could take a despicable and evil protagonist and create any sympathy for them. Does this succeed? Only partly. But I didn't actually care about the protagonist, and they weren't the reason I read on. My only sympathy was due to circumstances, and I wouldn't have been bothered in the least by any of the characters in the novel dying. To that extent it can't be a success.

On the plus side the novel is well written, and the first-person perspective does not get boring. I wanted to read on to find out what would happen (even if I was then disappointed).

I think the novel is partly a victim of its own success. The cover of the novel was emblazoned with claims that it was a work of genius. As soon as that happens the book will have a much harder time winning people over. Marketing people do have a habit of ruining things.

I'd heard nothing about the ending of the book, and when it arrived it felt contrived - a cellar full of explosives, anyone? - as if it wanted to cram everything outrageous in there. The protagonist's calm summary afterwards reads like the epilogue in an episode of 'Police Squad', and the motivations for the bizarre actions and cover-ups aren't convincing. Eric's role is to be a red herring who affects only one action of significance in the plot, which doesn't justify the amount of focus assigned to him. The finale was confusing anyway. For example, Eric threw a lit torch into the cellar, but not onto the explosives, so why throw it in? Then he runs off, and suddenly a separate building (the shed) explodes - why? It isn't explained. It just appears to be there to create artificial drama for the finale.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. This was intentionally a 'little' story expanded into a consciousness novel.

What's strange is that I could put up with the excessive cruelty of the novel, despite some of it (dog-related) having a very tenuous explanation. It is fiction, and even though I'm a vegetarian, I was willing to accept the world and the characters. But then inconsistencies kept irritating me. Here's two that stood out for me.

1> We finally learn what happened to Eric in a detailed first-hand account. Except... the novel's narrator wasn't there. Eric didn't tell him. All he knows is what came in a letter from a nurse who also wasn't present during the scenes described. So there is no way Frank could have known what happened in the way it was described. It's a case of the author trying to overcome the limitations of first person narrative by trying to distract us with a sleight-of-hand, but as soon as you see the trick it looks feeble.

2> [Spoiler, stop reading here if you haven't yet read the Wasp Factory] Eric was older than Frank. They played together for years. Are we really meant to believe that Eric had never seen Frank naked, never dressed him as a toddler, they'd never seen each other urinate? And could therefore believe that his sister was really his brother? It seems ridiculous. Yet the only tenuous explanation for Eric's dog burning is that it is some form of mad revenge on dogs for what they did to his 'brother'. But I just can't believe that. The more I thought about it and worked out the sequence of events the more contrived it seemed, the more the sleight-of-hand was involved in trying to make things hazy to distract you from the implausibility of events.

Overall the book is well written and compelling. It is also over-rated and unsatisfying when analysed.



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