great Scottish writers – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory

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Iain Banks (1985) The Wasp Factory.

I’ve read this book before and after reading it again I kinda remembered what happened in the end. But I didn’t appreciate it as a work of genius, the kind of thing I’d like to write, as I do now. Perhaps in the week that Philippa Gregory took time out slate other writers and make it clear she sees herself as the big I AM (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/aug/14/philippa-gregory-lazy-and-sloppy-genre-writing-pornography), it’s good to look back at the deceased writer Iain Banks’s humility and what he says in the Preface to this book:

At the start of 1980 I thought of myself as a science fiction writer, albeit a profoundly unpublishable one. I’d wanted to be a writer since primary school and had started trying to write novels when I was fourteen, finally producing something loosely fitting that definition two years later; a spy story crammed with sex and violence (I still scorn the idea of only writing what you know about).

The Wasp Factory is science fiction fable in twelve chapters with elements of genetic, Frankenstein, social engineering. The narrator, Frank Cauldhame, (Cold Home, Banks has a Dickensian ear for guttural names) aged sixteen, lives at home with his father in an isolated house in the East of Scotland, where Iain Banks came from, separated from the fictional village of Porterneil, by a bridge and the sea. Frank tells the reader his dad is ‘eccentric’, which in the nuanced Scottish way turns out to be something of an understatement. His only friend in a dwarf, Jamie, who Frank lets sit on his shoulders so he can see when they go to the mosh pit of the local boozer for a punk gig. The housekeeper Mrs Clamp is tiny, an ancient crone and his half brother Eric is in the loony bin, a local legend for setting fire to dogs and trying to make the younger children in Porterneil eat worms and maggots, which he says has plenty of protein. Eric is the other, the threat from out there that threatens the safe space of (cold) home. All of the characters are in some way warped. The narrator is no exception, he tells the reader he is a serial killer, having murdered his younger brother, Paul, his elder cousin, and to balance up the cosmic equation, a younger female cousin. He has a very low opinion of females, equating them with bovine animals, such as sheep and cattle that have been dehorned and domesticated. He has no intention allowing that to happen to him.   When Diggs, the policeman, comes to tell his father Eric has escaped from the asylum and is likely coming home Frank’s secrets and his dad’s, entwined, locked rooms and existence are threatened. Frank tells the reader,

‘[the house and land]was the centre of my power and strength, and also the place I had most need to protect’.

Frank has developed a series of rituals to protect home. He uses the wasp factory he has constructed in the loft to read visions of the future. But he also consults the bones of Old Saul (related to Paul) in the bunker temple on the dunes of the beach.  The Wasp Factory is a Gothic novel. Frank in the opening chapter, ‘The Sacrifice Poles,’ tells the reader about his rituals, ‘I had two poles on the dune. One of the poles held a rat head, with two dragonflies, the other a seagull and two mice.’

The Wasp Factory is a coming-of-age novel in which everyone is a liar, and protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is as like a more cynical version of Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn after they have sniffed glue and taken magic mushrooms and only he knows, or needs to uncover, the real truth, which is revealed in the denouement.

The Wasp Factory like any novel worth reading is a detective story and a thriller that asks questions of the reader. At its centre is played out the myth of Hermaphroditus and the logic of hermeneutics from the Greek ‘interpret’ with Frank’s father also acting as his mother, and his brother Eric, dressed in girl’s clothes from an early age with its suggestions of the mutability of gender. Eric’s divine madness, however, came from his humanity, from his studies as student doctor, a kind of extended post-traumatic-stress disorder played out away from the safety of home.

The Wasp Factory isn’t about wasps, but there is a sting in the tale. Everything changes and everything stays the same, like re-reading a book worth reading you see the world differently.

Evelyn Waugh (1988 [1930]) Vile Bodies.

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I bought this book for one pence on Amazon. I think it’s overpriced, but I don’t want my money back. The dedication in the book is to Bryan Moyne and Diana Mosley. I don’t know who Bryan is, but Diana, friend of Hitler, married Sir Oswald Mosley, Vile Bodies, indeed. I wanted to have a look at this book because Selina Todd mentions it, in her history, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. Characters in Vile Body, think here of spitting images, Diana Mosley and her fascist friends treat the General Strike of 1926 as a lark in which the can dress up and act differently. Of course they could. A government decree held that strikers and working people, in general, could be and should be manhandled in any way those Middle and Upper Class strike-breakers saw fit. They would not be prosecuted, but commended in beating the brutes and showing them who was boss. Shades of the miner’s strike 1984- 85. Winston Churchill’s plan to use soldiers to shoot strikers would, however, regarded as a tad excessive by Margaret Thatcher’s loose standards.

I’ve got off-track here. In the preface to Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh writing in 1964, says:

This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of 25, to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 5000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened…Vile Bodies caught the public’s fancy.

In other words Vile Bodies was a best seller. Think of every cliché written about vanity publishing and multiply it by ten. I’m biased. Normally, I wouldn’t read a book with upper- class protagonists and we don’t need satire when we have the moron’s moron as President. Vile Bodies. I was robbed your honour. I could give this book to a charity shop, but probably better pulped, less than a penny’s worth but more than the book’s worth.

 

Mitch Albom (2003) the five people you meet in Heaven

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I read this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. For those of you that don’t know Mitch Albom is ‘Author of the international bestseller tuesdays with Morrie’. For those of you that did know, but forgot, it’s tagged below the author’s name on the cover. I’ve read tuesdays with Morrie and I can probably tell you the plot, Mitch Albom goes to visit this old guy called Morrie on a Tuesday, and then one of them dies and it’s not Mitch and it’s not Tuesday. I read quite a lot and my memory is terrible, books swirl around like corks in an empty ocean, some of them stick, but most of them don’t. I remember I liked tuesday with Morrie and I’m sure it had some home-spun wisdom.

I’m sure Morrie went to heaven and I’m sure Eddie, who is over eighty-years’, is the same kind of ageless hero that went to heaven, because the narrator tell the reader the end is the beginning.

The last hours of Eddie’s life was spent like most of the others at Ruby Pier, an amusement park by a gray ocean. The park had the usual attractions, a board-walk, a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars, a taffy stand, and an arcade where you could shoot streams of water into a clown’s mouth.

I was trying to remember where I’d read this kind of stuff before. When I was a kid we used to get two Sunday papers. The Sunday Mail and The Sunday Post. The Post had ‘The Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’ and  carried pages of homilies to the salt-of-the-earth everyman and everywoman that went that extra step to make life better for everybody else. People a bit like Eddie. Eddie dies saving a little girl’s life, but he’d lived a full life and now he’s on the other side there’s some lessons he’s got to learn before he progresses to Heaven mark II. When salt of the earth meets sugar something has to give.

Eddie meets the guy with blue skin, who worked in the carnival as a freak. He meets his wife and his dad and Ruby who the pier was named after. Each one tries to decrust his salty exterior to get to that mushy heart within. Eddie asks big questions like is God in heaven? Yeh, Eddie, he really is. And can he talk to Him? Yeh, Eddie, you can. We all can!

I guess the character that sticks with me is the Captain. He’s waiting for Eddie on top of a tree in some unnamed island in the Pacific. Eddie has joined up. Of course he did. Anybody worth their salt joined up (President Trump got five deferrals from the Vietnam war because his dad was rich, rich, rich, rich and very rich) and Eddie is no exception to the non-rich, salt-of-the -earth rule. The Captain is one of the good guys but he shoots Eddie, because it was necessary. That’s what good guy do. They do the necessary and salt of the earth that they are, don’t try and claim the credit (compare with the marauding band of Trumpters). Eddie was mad about it. Of course he was, but he had a lesson to learn, don’t be a Donald all your life. Let it go.

The surprise here is Eddie, the Captain, and a few of his good  buddies, get captured by the sneaky Japanese. You know the kind. They look like North Koreans, crudely written caricatures of real people, easily fooled and found wanting in the end. Eddie has to kill a couple of Nips. Listen up, salt of the earth wasn’t brought into this world to bow to the masochistic, no good bastards that like torturing poor soldiers and aren’t even American Trumpters. Eddie does what a man’s got to do. So does the Captain. In a heavenly body he understands better the choices he had to make. There’s a line rattling about somewhere about everybody affecting everybody else, even those not yet born.  I want one of those heavenly bodies, but not right now Mr –Apocalypse Now- Trump for Dummies. Not now.

So tueday with Morrie. Yeh, I’d like a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday too, if you don’t mind. Thanks Mitch for reminding us. There’s sugar and sugar puffs. Salt of the earth. You better believe it – or else.

 

Anniversary of Lily Poole.

31st July 2016, Lily Poole finally stumbled word wearily over the finishing line and hit the paying book market. Eleven months later, I finally got a copy of the print used on the cover of Lily Poole framed and hung on the wall facing me in the cupboard in which I write (yes, I’m writing this in a cupboard, I’ve always been weird that way). The cover is perfect. A beautiful piece of smudged artwork. Look closely at the outline of the man and wee girl holding hands and above the second O, in the title, a crow is perched. I like that. It’s a difficult book to place in any one genre and that about sums is up.

I had a ready response for those that asked what the book is about and usually it was ‘it’s a ghost story without a ghost’. That sounds kinda smart and witty. Most folk that didn’t know me probably thought I was just some tosser talking shite, and most folk that did know me knew I was a tosser talking shite. The last guy to ask me what the book was about was the poet William Letford whose latest work Dirt I’d bought because I like the title. He’d never heard of me, of course, and I’d never heard of him, but one of the library staff whispered I too was a writer. Write what you know as Mark Twain supposedly said.  I liked William and told him that my book was about us, the people of Clydebank, and that’s about as near as an honest answer as I can give.

Ratings: Amazon keeps the score and the format of “Lily Poole” is currently ranked #320,211 in the Kindle Store (updated hourly) the highest it achieved was #11 in a subcategory.

I’m not really sure how sales work, but I do know it bores me senseless constantly trying to sell, sell, sell is like a bulimia of the soul.

None of the mainstream media showed interested, which is understandable, there’s no hook. I’m not as photogenic as a seal pub, more like a selfie of last night’s dinner (Scampi and chips, in case you’re interested in my fixation with food). I’ve not been in any soaps or been on the telly, unless you count a triumphant re-run of me playing the back of Dr Finlay’s head (see the start of a bald spot of my career on YouTube) or a non-speaking nobody that saunters past Taggart in Taggart, but everybody in Scotland has been in Taggart.  I’ve not played football for Scotland and wouldn’t even get in the woman’s team that got gubbed 7-0 by England.  I got 23 reviews on Amazon. That’s pretty good. I guess around a third were from people I know, which hints at nepotism. I got a mention in The Clydebank Post and West Dunbartonshire Council made my book novel of the week in their libraries which delighted me, and must be a high point.

I didn’t want a launch party but the gathering in The Cabin was a hoot.

A low point is Scottish Book Trust refusing to acknowledge me as a published author.

I’m nothing noteworthy and my book is one among millions of others. I’m invisible and my book fades away. That’s OK, a year in book life is 100 years in ordinary life. I’m like that wee smudged crow that doesn’t crow.