Iain Banks’s first novel invites comparison with the work of Ian McEwan. During the mid-1970’s, McEwan began to establish himself as one of Britain’s most successful writers of fiction. First Love, Last Rites—his first collection of short stories—sold unusually well and won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award. The Cement Garden, his first novel, was widely and on the whole very favorably reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic. McEwan, observed the critics, employs prose that is vivid and remarkably controlled; he constructs plots that are as riveting as they are tightly constructed.

Still, some critics have admitted to being puzzled by McEwan’s frequent depiction of unpleasant characters caught in unsavory situations, and by his apparent preoccupation with many of those bodily details that polite people avoid mentioning in mixed groups at supper parties. They point, for example, to The Cement Garden, in which four school-age siblings quietly bury their widowed mother in a trunk in the cellar and, left to themselves, grow increasingly filthy and weird. These children, suggested the American novelist Anne Tyler, are “so consistently unpleasant, unlikeable and bitter that we can’t believe in them, and we certainly can’t identify with them.”

But the ghastliness in McEwan’s fiction is not often gratuitous. Like William Golding before him, McEwan is a serious, unusually gifted artist whose use of the disgusting and the bizarre helps him reveal the thin margin that separates civilization from chaos, and the human from the brutish. Surely McEwan does not want us to “identify” with his characters as much as he wants us to recognize them as perhaps only slightly exaggerated representatives of Britain’s lower and middle classes during a period of profound social discontinuity—a period in which the wide collapse of traditional behavioral guidelines has been accompanied by the steady rise of a youth subculture that loudly promotes the notion that man’s main purpose in life is to pursue pleasure, however mindless or fleeting.

Iain Banks’s first novel, The Wasp Factory, is set against a rather dreary Scottish landscape and features characters who would not look out of place in a volume of McEwan’s stories. Frank Cauldhame, its narrator, is a tubby 17-year-old who once carefully plotted the deaths of a couple of his relatives, and who now amuses himself by torturing insects and strangling hares. Frank’s older brother Eric is an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, who enjoys setting fire to dogs. The father of this charming pair is a demented biochemist who has written a book arguing that the earth is a Mobius strip, not a sphere.

Like McEwan, Banks clearly wants his readers to ponder again the uncomfortable fact that human beings—particularly males—are eminently capable of committing the most repulsive crimes. And like McEwan, he appears to be interested in the continuing ramifications of what in this country used to be called “the generation gap.” In The Wasp Factory, as in many of McEwan’s pieces, adolescents are shown taking an easy retreat into a solipsistic void where adults are simply assumed to be superfluous dolts, and where older cultural mores have not the slightest bearing.

Unfortunately, Banks is not yet the writer that McEwan is. The Wasp Factory drags badly at times and includes some transitions—and a “surprise” conclusion—that are simply clunky. Banks also appears to be uncertain of his tone. The Wasp Factory thus oddly combines a Roald Dahl-like drollery with the sort of forced scatological jocosity that one finds in frat houses and the National Lampoon. Though The Wasp Factory is occasionally arresting and largely well-intentioned, it certainly is not—despite its publisher’s claims—another Lord of the Flies.


[The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks; Houghton Mifflin; Boston]