A few weeks ago, just before the launch of the Boo Books anthology ‘After the Fall’, myself and Dave Hartley interviewed each other about our writing and our influences. One thing we talked about and which became apparent was that at some point in our teenage years, we found a formative book which influenced us. I thought that, considering the news this week about the potential changes in the English Literature curriculum, that I would talk about the one book which made me understand what literature and writing could do.
I don’t know quite where I was when I first read The Wasp Factory. I remember how old I was (fifteen) and I remember who gave it to me (Mr Cawley, my English teacher), but I don’t remember where I sat down and read it. Post-reading it, I was open to a world of adult fiction and threw myself into Easton Ellis, Amis, and King, but my first proper adult novel was perhaps aptly, Iain Banks’ debut.
I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.
The opening lines of the book alone are enough to engage even the most bored reader: Brother, escaped? The factory told him? What the fuck are sacrifice poles? These words form a mythology in a readers mind in a way that other books, especially those we studied in school absolutely failed to do. These words created a world that was different from our own, something close to Dahl, but weirder, more adult. Dahl, after all, never had Charlie engaging like that with the Chocolate factory.
Tim Martin in the Telegraph describes The Wasp Factory, and Banks’ as “the first writer to teach half the people I knew an unforgettable lesson about literature: that to the receptive reader, a book can be a hand grenade.” I wholeheartedly agree. The Wasp Factory may not have the same power over a reader over the age of eighteen or so, because it is so much about the frustration and horror of being a teenage boy. It’s an angry book, the way that ‘If….’ was an angry film. It’s never angsty, but it is violent and absolutely horrible in some places.
“My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them, and the Sea because it has always frustrated me, destroying what I have built, washing away what I have left, wiping clean the marks I have made.”
The narrative is one that, quite frighteningly, shares language with many diatribes from mass murderers, and could certainly be found in essays and confessions from school-shooting suspects and perpetrators. It is a book about terrible people, doing terrible things. John Mullen in The Guardian points out that, “The current paperback edition carries extracts from some original reviews that described it as (in the words of the Sunday Express) “the literary equivalent of a video nasty”” and this is as apt a term as any to describe the book. However, I don’t think the book ever sets out to shock its readers, or to completely disgust them. The story of Frank, who has murdered three people, describing their deaths with the same colourful attitude as one would a nursery rhyme;
“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”
is a black comedy, an Edward Gorey-esque, gothic comedy. It has none of the boring teen novel everyone’s-a-phoney content from Catcher in the Rye, and it has far more attitude and heart than Less Than Zero.
The Wasp Factory, to me, was an eye-opener not just because of its content, although that was a big part of it. It showed me what a first person narration could do, in particular in terms of an unreliable narrator.
The book was also my first experience of a fun adult novel. Up to that point I had been taught to read dry books in English class, analysing them to the point of losing all interest. The Wasp Factory was the first adult novel where I felt I was allowed to enjoy myself, and I think that feeling is one you only get rarely, if ever now.
“You might enjoy this.” I remember my English teacher saying that to me when he passed me the book. He said it again about six months later, handing over a copy of Underworld, and he was right then too, but never more right than when he handed me that copy of Iain Banks’ debut.
So, that’s my ‘This One Book’, but what is yours? I’d like to nominate a couple of writers to get involved in this and write a blogpost about their one book, and in turn, perhaps nominate a few more writers to discuss theirs. I’d like to nominate Simon Sylvester and Dave Hartley to tell us about their One Book.
Who knows, maybe we’ll uncover some gems along the way!