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The Wasp Factory: A political allegory?

Read between the lines and Iain Banks’s cult novel can be read as a post-Orwellian critique of Thatcher.

By Will Richmond (Content Producer)

2 October 2013 at 3.51pm | 1 Comment

Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory was published in 1984 – the year George Orwell had imagined a dystopian state in what was once Great Britain. The relevance of Orwell’s vision to the political climate of the 1980s is certainly thought provoking, and Banks’s first published novel may be regarded as an update. We find in it an alternative dystopia and a caution against the emergence of a differently reprehensible state.

The Wasp Factory is a controversial novel. The Irish Times said of its publication, ‘it is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity’ and the Sunday Express described the book as ‘a silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics.’ The Times Literary Supplement decided it was sensationalism in the face of the writer’s previous rejections: ‘the surest way to make an impact with a first novel, if not the most satisfactory, is to deal in extremes of oddity and unpleasantness.’ We have the benefit of hindsight.

In place of the Stalinist-style political control that Orwell saw as the undesirable endgame of European totalitarian socialism we see untrammelled freedom. Banks gives us a scenario in which a teenager with a tendency towards megalomania and an obsession with torturing animals roams free, unmonitored by any form of authority. We are shown what disturbed humans are capable of when nobody is watching.

Frank, the protagonist, is not a legally registered citizen (a sort of Orwellian ‘unperson’) and his father keeps him hidden from the authorities on a ‘nearly-island’ on the North Sea coast of Scotland. Frank’s dominion over the ‘island’ and its fauna is slightly ridiculous, recalling the imaginary war games many children play. But there is nothing ridiculous in his dispassionate and sadistic capacity for murder, nor in the family saga of abuse and neglect that is described in the margins of the story.

Paul Morley, in his programme article for Ben Frost’s opera (which received its premiere at Bregenz Festival this summer and gets its UK premiere in the Linbury from tonight) was keen to keep much of the plot concealed. He wrote, ‘it is best for the audience to know nothing about what is about to happen, other than they are where the action is, and one more crazed thing leads to another, to more and more change, until there is, incredibly, nowhere else to go.’ We are presented with the story of a dangerously cunning sociopath who, left to his own devices, commits barely believable transgressions of what we might sentimentally (nostalgically?) call ‘conscience’. Few in today’s national climate would accept that it is best they ‘know nothing’ and let one crazed thing lead to another.

If The Wasp Factory struck a keynote in the early eighties, Banks’s seventh novel, Complicity (1993), pursues the tune. Margaret Thatcher’s government spanned the decade that separates the two books and Complicity describes a series of sadistic murders committed in retribution for the victims’ selfish exploitation of the permissiveness of the Thatcher years. Banks’s response to Thatcher’s death in April 2013, two months before his own, was to comment that while he was respectful, her ‘baleful influence on British politics remains undiminished.’ His strong feelings go some way towards explaining the tone of these two shocking novels that bookended the Thatcher decade. Thatcher’s keenness to free the British economy from state control and the stranglehold of the unions could be seen as partly responsible for the barbarity of unregulated enterprise that has proceeded at the expense of other forms of freedom. Banks certainly saw degeneration and savagery in the societal changes linked to the free market of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the wake of the Cold War and in the name of democracy, the project to avert an Orwellian nightmare has failed to take responsible precautions against the proliferation of simple, unconscionable selfishness. The Wasp Factory can be read as an allegory of what happens when sociopaths are allowed to wreak unbridled dominion over a small island. Perhaps rather than (or as well as) a sensationalist novel that launched the career of a highly political writer, The Wasp Factory is a leveled caution of the Orwellian kind.

The Wasp Factory runs from 2 – 8 October in the Linbury Studio Theatre. A limited number of tickets are still available.
The production is staged with support from Capital Cultural Fund Berlin and Nordic Culture Point.

This article has 1 comment

  1. I link a discussion thread from goodreads on and around the topic of this article.

    I could definitely see how the grisliness of the book came from Banks' reaction to the govt. but as for the status of the book as parable, so much happens that is literally gratuitous -- though I don't use the word in the superficially pejorative sense. Exorcism, perhaps, but not allegory.

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