Friday, 4 December 2015

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

*Spoilers Below*

The copy of this I got from the library had a foreword by Banks, probably to commemorate an anniversary of its publication. I skimmed it before I read the book - I've been wary of reading too deeply in forewords since John le Carre spoiled Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for me a few years ago. Still, in this case, it put an interesting bug in my ear. It was right near the end, where Banks said he was trying to write a book about a troubled young man that would be both pro-feminist and anti-militarism.

Then I started to read, and much of the book seemed cast in the "violence is the answer" Chuck Palahniuk-style, except that I knew that that wasn't what Banks was going for. It's probably good, because it takes Banks a while to tip his hand, and I'm not a big reader of books on serial killers. Even if they're serial killers whose killings happened long ago when he was a child. He says he thinks he's done with that, but of course there's uncertainty. The foreword kept me reading to find out what he meant.

The anti-militarism is easy to spot. It's there in Frank's heavy reliance in the symbols of violence and death, his fetishization of the tools and results of killing. It's in his overreaction to being foiled in his attempts to hurt other creatures, like the effort to fight back is, in an of itself, unfair when he's supposed to be winning. It brings the ideology of war down very close to that of an outraged two-year old determined to make others hurt for startling him. 

The story of Frank is told in the first-person, and weaves back and forth between his relatively quiet present and troubled past. Raised by a father who has kept him off the books and taught him to hate women, who builds bombs in the basement and lies regularly to keep Frank on his toes, Frank spends his days protecting his small island for incursions mostly imaginary. His older brother suffered a psychotic break, and has just broken out from a psychiatric hospital. 

The pro-feminist angle took me longer to get. I mean, we get that Frank hates women, and a feel for why, mostly coming from his father. The way that women have come to symbolize all that is weak and unworthy to Frank, who knows about them purely from media, and assumes that media images closely approximate real life. 

But it was close enough to the books that really do seem to hold women in complete disdain that that enough didn't feel particularly pro-feminist.

Then we get to the end, and the revelation at the core of this story, and I realized what Banks was trying to do and how. Not only was this a story of toxic masculinity, it also took the approach of taking as the starting point the social construction of gender, completely apart from biological sex, and how this brand of toxic masculinity infects those it touches. That loathing is not tied to biology, or reality, or knowledge. It breeds in ignorance and the othering of women, without ever seeing women as fellow human beings.

So in the end, despite this being a book that is predominantly about men, I see what he was trying to do, and although you have to hold on till the very last five pages to get what he's trying to do, it's interesting, and made me glad I'd read the book. 

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