Monday, June 10, 2013

Iain Banks Has Left the Wasp Factory


The best way to remember Iain Banks, who died yesterday morning at the far-too-young age of 59, is by reading one of his books.  If you've never read it, I recommend the novel that first brought him to the astounded attention of the world -- The Wasp Factory.  By some readings it's a horror novel, by others mainstream.  And it's just a flat-out astonishing piece of writing.  I say this as someone who is not a big fan of horror or of horror-related mainstream fiction.

Aside from the fact that it's relatively short and you can read it quickly, that's all I'm going to say about the book.  You'll be happiest going into this one blind.

And while I'm at it . . .

In 1994 I wrote an essay titled "In the Tradition..." which praised many of the fantasists then working whom I deemed most worthy of praise.  Here's an excerpt from it, in which I lauded Banks's The Bridge.  The word never appeared in the essay, but it occurs to me now that this was his Steampunk novel:

Iain Banks has the pleasant distinction of simultaneously holding down two separate literary careers, one as the mainstream author of such acclaimed works as The Wasp Factory and Canal Dreams, and the other as an equally admired science fiction writer.

I'll confess that I don't know which hat Banks was wearing when he wrote The Bridge.  It hardly matters.  What matters is the remarkable setting he has chosen for the bulk of the book--an enormous and seemingly endless bridge stretching from horizon to horizon across a nameless ocean.  An entire society lives upon the bridge, employing bicycles, rickshaws, and motorcycles for short-term transportation and steam trains for longer voyages.  Here is the scene from a platform above the main train deck:

Over the noise of the milling people, the continual hisses and clanks, grindings and gratings, klaxons and whistles of the trains on the deck beneath sound like shrieks from some mechanistic underworld, while every now and again a deep rumble and a still more profound quaking and rattling announces a heavy train passing somewhere below; great pulsing clouds of white steam roll around the street and upwards.
 Above, where the sky ought to be, are the distant, hazily seen girders of the high bridge; obscured by the rising fumes and vapors, dimmed by the light intercepted outside them by their carapace of people-infected rooms and offices, they rise above and look down upon the rude profanity of these afterthought constructions with all the majesty and splendor of a great cathedral roof.

The first-person narrator is being treated for amnesia.  He finds himself in a mannered society rather like that of Freud's Vienna but riddled with small absurdities, not the least of which is the total lack of curiosity its citizens display toward the bridge itself.  What lands does it connect?  Who built it?  How old is it?  Only the protagonist cares, and he cannot find out.

His sporadic search for answers is the chief of three alternating narratives.  The second follows the life and difficult romance of a (young, at first) man in contemporary Scotland, and the third . . . well, it can only be characterized as the adventures of Conan the Glaswegian.

At first the farcical adventures of a nearly brainless swordsman with an overintellectualized familiar and a truly hideous accent ("I luv the ded, this old basturt sez to me when I wiz tryin to get some innfurmashin out ov him.  You fuckin old pervert I sez, gettin a bit fed up by this time enyway, and slit his throate; ah askd you whare the fukin Sleepin Byootie woz, no whit kind of humpin you like.  No, no he sez, splutterin sumthin awfy and gettin blud all ovir ma new curiearse, no he sez I sed Isle of the Dead" and so on) seem jarring and even intrusive.  There are moments in the main narration when the fabric of reality wears thin and opens a window into the second plot-line.  But this barbarian stuff is straight out of left field.

These segments are so engaging, however, so funny in an awful way, that the reader comes to accept them while doubting they'll ever quite make sense.

The Bridge is, underneath all, a novel of psychological revelation.  So I am forced to be a little coy about the plot.  In broad terms, it is about the protagonist's reluctance to deal with the mystery of his situation.  He is a man in serious peril and it is his task to discover the nature of that peril.  However, life on the bridge is pleasant, and he has met an engaging woman, an engineer's daughter named Abberlaine Arrol.

The sections on the bridge are more vivid and engaging than those set in Scotland.  The same could be said of the swaggering, cigar-smoking Abberlaine compared to her real-world counterpart.  Small wonder that the protagonist is uneager to rock the boat.  But little things start going wrong.  Telephones cease to work for him.  He loses his social position.  Mad events proliferate.  He must finally find the resolve to ask tough questions and face their consequences.

Morals are out of fashion these days, even in the retrogressive universes of fantasy.  But if there is one message to be taken away from the book, it is this:  That sometimes the reason life seems difficult is that we are engaged in difficult and important work.

And our foul-mouthed, sexually deplorable, and bloody-handed barbarian?  One of the many delights of The Bridge is the marvelously orchestrated revelation by story's end that he is integral to the plot.  Central, even.



skyknyt said...

Use of Weapons changed my life.

In the middle of reading it, around the chapter that Zakalwe is trying to become a poet, I thought to myself, "I should work on my writing so I can write a novel this good."

When I reached the ending, I thought to myself "I will never write a novel this good."

I'll still try, though. I can't get over how young he was, it's a truly tragic loss. My dad was that age when he went too, and it's much too young.


HANNAH'S DAD said...

For me it was _The Player of Games_ - my sign that Space Opera could be smart and modern. It's a very un-Banks like book in a way - very straightforward - but a gem nevertheless.