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 (, 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.

Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015) His Bloody Project. Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.

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His Bloody Project was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. Fiction often dresses up as fact. In the preface Burnet cites Gaelic Ossian poetry as a fake widely lauded for being factual, but the best fiction always does seem factual, or else it’s not worth reading. As a murder there’s no mystery. In the small crofting community of Culuie, with around 55 residents, seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae took a croman and flaughter, a kind of pick and spade used for tending the rocky soil, and killed three of his neighbours. He was covered in blood and made no attempt to escape. Macrare freely admitted to killing Lachlan Mackenzie, his teenage daughter Flora and infant son Donald at the Mackenzie house on the 10th August 1869.

Graham Macrae Burnet claim to have in possession various reports of what happened on that day and afterwards. They include statements from Residents of Cuildrie, Medical Reports and what we now could call mental health, but was then called lunacy, and transcripts of the trial. But the most contentious piece of evidence is a purported hand-written account by Roderick Macrae of why he carried out these killings. The question of being a reliable or unreliable narrator Burnet sidesteps with sleight of pen arguing that it was possible a boy educated in the Kirk school of Camusterrach, taught Latin, Greek and science, incarcerated in Inverness Castle, could produce such remarkable and descriptive prose and all Burnet had done was tidy up his punctuation.

‘I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot,’ we are all phonies as the narrator Holden Cauldfield said in the novel Catcher in the Rye, which of course, Cauldfield and not J.D.Salinger obviously wrote.

Roderick Macrae argued he’d done what he done, because he had to stop the persecution of his father John, ‘a crofter of good standing in the parish’.

A different viewpoint of John’s father is detailed in a section of the book by the supercilious J. Bruce Thomson, Resident Surgeon as the General Prison for Scotland in Perth and acknowledged master in the nascent discipline of Criminal Anthropology. Burnet need not stray far from the truth to find characters like Thomson, buttressed by the belief of the natural order of things, God had created man and the British Empire and at the peak of both was Thomson, standing slightly below Jesus. We see many of the same characteristics in the White House and the same eugenic beliefs that reached their peak in the Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, but have bounced back in a remarkably short time and now also reside in the White House. Here Thomson visits John Macrae and finds it difficult to differentiate him from the cattle sharing his house and a sheep grazing on his croft. ‘Could you describe your son’s state of mind on that morning?’

‘One man can no more see inside the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’

Thomson might never be wrong, but he modifies his belief system and admits John might have a sense of animal cunning, shown when he asks the question. But the question remains was Roderick a lunatic, driven to murder? Was he indeed what we would call nowadays a psychopath, having the facilities of thought and reason, but no moral understanding? This is an anti-twee Scottish novels not based on lungfuls of clean air and clean water and living lives of remarkable virtue and little modesty.   What Macrae does so skilfully (and I’ll not say which Macrae) is show when the bully gets the whip and is promoted into a position of power, as Lachlan MacKenzie so obviously is,  survival of the fittest, becomes a great deal harder for those under the whip. In creating an order lauded by Lords, landlords and baillies, Lachlan MacKenzie creates a greater disorder that festers and burns. Despite his crimes such is the skill of the novelist the reader’s sympathy remains (mostly) with Roderick.