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One of the most prominent names in contemporary Scottish literature is that of Iain Menzies Banks. Along with his highly critically acclaimed mainstream fiction, Banks’ work within the Sci-Fi genre commands something of a cult fan-base. Towards the end of the 21st century, Banks distinguished himself as an unconventional and highly skilled author, through his taste for often controversial subject matter, and his adoption of unusual technique as a writer. Of these techniques, his execution of unusual narrative method is possibly his most distinctive feature.
Casualty of a serious car crash, Alexander is left both physically and mentally broken on the roadside of the Forth Road Bridge. This setting superimposes itself on the mind of the protagonist as we, as the reader, witness his existence within the illusionary world of “The Bridge”, where he finds himself, with no memory of his life or identity to the point of his arrival there.
This extremely rigid, balanced structure is used to present the “time-line” of Lennox’s recovery, outlining the various stages he experienced in his progress towards consciousness. The way in which he titles each chapter is particularly vital to this cause.
Significantly, the novel begins with “Coma” and concludes with “Coda”. Coma, the introductory passage, serves to establish the situation around which the novel is centred, and comprises of the protagonists drug and trauma addled, first person monologue as he lies injured and trapped in a car-wreck by the Forth Road Bridge. It is also a means of contextualising the story that follows, clarifying that the dream state he enters in the consequent section of the novel is infact a dream state, and is not a physical, actual occurrence. This is important to the readers understanding of the novel, and allows Banks to communicate his story in such a way that he can alternate between narratives easily, developing various aspects of the protagonists personality, thus aiding his portrayal of the fractured mind of Alexander Lennox.
Coda parallels Coma as the final passage of the novel. Descriptive, usually, of the concluding movement of a musical piece, this choice of Coda as the title of this chapter seems apt. As with Coma, this passage is written as a stream-of-consciousness.
The Wasp Factory was Banks’ controversial début into the field of mainstream fiction, and tells the story of the sixteen year old psychopathic mass murderer, Frank, whose true sexual identity as a female has been hidden from her throughout her life by her deranged father.
The structural format of The Wasp Factory is simple and linear, with no alternation between narrative perspectives, and is in this respect dramatically different from the complicated, multi-layered structure of The Bridge. However, the novels do share a common feature: an unreliable narrator. While the narrative of The Bridge is fractured and varied (all-the-while pertaining to a single protagonist), as a parallel to the physical and mental trauma of a car crash, and for the most part takes its setting in the protagonists mind thus amounting to a degree of unreliability, the narrator of The Wasp Factory is flawed more fundamentally, in their mentality.
Acknowledged widely as one of the most significant pieces of literature of the later 20th century, as well as it’s function as an article of Gothic fiction, The Wasp Factory presents an interesting character study of an adolescent mass murderer, a feature very relevant to present day.
The Wasp Factory is written in the 1st person, and tells the story of Frank Cauldhame, as her brother (who is portrayed as an even darker incarnation of Frank) and the truth about her upbringing – and her true sex-is revealed. The character of Frank in The Wasp Factory is one who is highly disturbed and mentally unstable, and the use of a first person narrative develops a closeness to the character, and an absolute awareness of her thoughts. This allows Banks to communicate her psychological state using not simply her actions but her thought and reasoning too: we don’t only know that Frank does crazy things, but also the motives behind her activities and their obsessive compulsive nature. This narrative structure also presents a way for the author to hint at the twist of the story- the discovery of Frank’s true sexuality- through Frank’s insight and awareness of some unknown, but crucial, truth being kept from him. It helps in the construction of an element of tension. Furthermore, a first person narrative allows Banks to avoid explicitly referring to Frank as He or She, and is therefore necessary to the impact of the end revelation.
Possibly the most notable feature of Franks persona is her sense of ritualism, herr displays of severely obsessive compulsive tendencies. The title of the books itself is in reference to a device constructed by Frank, used as a means of making predictions of the future. The “Factory” consists of a clock face, taken from a local dump, at the centre of twelve “traps”, behind each number. A wasp is placed in the centre of the Factory, and finds it’s way into one of these traps where it is killed through one of a number of means, such as fire, drowning or crushing. Based on the nature of the wasps death, Frank makes divinations and judgements regarding the future. From the opening lines of the first chapter, this obsessive regard for the factory is made evident:
“I already knew something was going to happen: the Factory told me.”
Here we see Frank almost personify the device, through assigning it the action of “telling” him, thus supporting the concept of the Factory as a sentient being, in the mind of Frank, almost a deity. The consequent references to the Factory, to the eventual explanation of what it actually is, are frequent and largely ambiguous, Frank passing comment on the action of “collecting” wasps for use within it, and clarifying its location: in the loft of Frank’s home, where a room is devoted to its cause. Thus, the mysterious, even spiritual significance it holds for Frank is reinforced. This is even reflected in the very structure of the novel: the twelve chapters into which it is divided to correspond with the twelve numerals of the clock face of the Wasp Factory. Just as the Factory provides a clear-cut structure to the novel, it also provides a centrepiece to the structure of Franks life, to her daily routine.
Franks obsessive tendencies extend beyond the Factory, indeed the first action we see her make in the novel is to check her “Sacrifice Poles”, the impaled heads of small animals, the physical state of which she uses as another device by which to divine the future. This introduction to the macabre world of Frank serves to establish an element of the grotesque which will remain consistent throughout the novel. Furthermore, this image also establishes the mentality of the protagonist, Franks warped reality, and sets a standard of the level of madness of her actions (indeed, this, “making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles” will prove to be one of the tamer of such actions, comparative, for instance, to Franks particularly graphic account of the massacre of a warren of rabbits, a little later in the novel).
Inversions belongs in the Sci Fi genre, penned under the name “Iain M Banks”. It is unofficially thought to be a part of the “Culture” series, Banks’ utopian version of the the universe. Inversions feature two separate plot lines based on two characters with contrasting ethics. On one hand we see a female physician- the Good Doctor- who strives to help anyone she can as much as she can, on the other, a bodyguard who believes in looking out for ones self and letting others work out their problems themselves- selfishness versus selflessness. These contrasting viewpoints are supported by the use of a predominantly dual narrative, with an explanatory prologue and epilogue.
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