Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Another contribution from one of Scotland’s finest living authors, The Wasp Factory is Banks’ explosive debut, a genuinely shocking book that has not only developed a bit of a cult over the years but is apparently now being taught on the A-level syllabus...

The Wasp Factory revolves around Frank, who cheerfully admits that before he was sixteen he had murdered three people. He lives on an island off the North Sea coast of Scotland with his grumpy father, the pair of them only connected to the mainland and reality by a bridge.

Franks’ pastimes involve acts of war against the local rabbit population using pipe bombs and catapults, consulting the eponymous 'factory' to predict the future and inspecting a set of skull adorned totem poles he has installed around his island, as well more traditional teenage behaviour such as wandering off into the town nearby on a Saturday night in order to get drunk with his friend Jamie and watch a gig.

Saturday night at the Cauldhame Arms and there I stood as usual at the back of the packed, smoke-filled room at the rear of the hotel, a plastic pint glass in my hand full of lager, my legs braced slightly on the floor in front of me, my back against a wallpapered pillar, and Jamie the dwarf sitting on my shoulders, resting his pint of Heavy on my head now and again and engaging me in conversation.

Appropriately enough, the band on that night are called The Vomits. By the end of the gig, Frankie’s had a wee bit too much. Jamie, however, has got his eye on a lady:

Unfortunately, Jamie ended up talking to some woman, but I was too busy trying to breathe deeply and keep the far wall steady really to care.

Jamie’s now hitting it off with a punk lass from Glasgow and talking about motorbikes while Frank is getting closer to anti-peristalsis:

Christ, I was about to do the Technicolor Yawn all over this girl’s jacket, through the tears and rusting her zips and filling her pockets, and probably send Jamie flying across the room into the beer-crates under the speaker stacks with first awful heave, and here were these two trading absurd biker fantasies.

Salvation seems moments away as they leave into the cool of the night, but Frank is possibly a little too far gone for that:

I was starting to get triple vision and wondering how you did that with only two eyes. I wasn’t sure if they were talking to me or not. I said, ‘Aye’, just in case they were, then felt myself being led out into the fresh air through the fire exit. I needed to go to the toilet, and with every step I took there seemed to be more convulsions from my guts. I had this horrible vision of my body being made up almost completely of two equal-sized compartments, one holding piss and the other undigested beer, whisky, crisps, dry-roasted peanuts, spit, snot, bile and one or two bits of fish and potatoes.

Desperate for the toilet, Frank makes a run for it and pisses all over the petrol pumps at the petrol garage. Just as Jamie arrives, he is also spectacularly sick:

‘Saw–’ I started to say ‘Sorry’, then the word turned into a heave. That anti-social part of my brain suddenly thought about the greasy eggs and bacon again and my stomach geysered. I doubled up, retching and heaving, feeling my guts contract like a balling fist inside me; involuntary, alive, like a woman must feel with a kicking child. My throat was rasped by the force of the jet.

The effect is chastening, up to a point:

I spent most of the Sunday in bed. After my binge of the previous night, I wanted rest, lots of liquid, little food, and my hangover to go away. I felt like deciding then and there never to get drunk again, but being so young I decided that this was probably a little unrealistic, so I determined not to get that drunk again.

As Frank’s insane brother Eric is now on the run from an asylum and closing in on their island, he probably has more pressing things to worry about anyway...


  1. Not my first Bank's, that was Complicity, handed to me in a bar in "Berlin with the phrase you read, you'll like this" although not his,best I enjoyed it enough to explore his other stuff of which this one is a fantastic example. Ps loving the booze, particularly whisky links

  2. Glad you're enjoying the stuff on whisky. For more on alcohol and the north-east, try The Wee Book of Calvin...