Binarisms

John Sutherland

  • Complicity by Iain Banks
    Little, Brown, 313 pp, £15.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 316 90688 3
  • Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
    Orbit, 496 pp, £8.99, January 1994, ISBN 1 85723 185 6

Say ‘Iain Banks’ and the person you are talking to will say ‘The Wasp Factory.’ Banks may have as much trouble getting out from under the success of his first novel as did William Golding. It was a memorable debut. The Wasp Factory provoked a moral panic in 1984. The TLS critic called it the ‘literary equivalent of the nastiest kind of juvenile delinquency’; Margaret Forster thought it less a novel than the script for a video nasty. Young male novelists routinely seek to give maximum offence. Martin Amis did so in 1975 by calling a novel Dead Babies. In The Wasp Factory Banks recounted acts of child-on-child sadism in a deadpan. Holden Caulfield monologue which suggested that serial killing was a minor rite of passage, as insignificant in adult retrospect as squeezing pimples or playing conkers:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

After a decade, what sticks in the mind from Banks’s first novel is the surprise ending in which the hero, Frank, discovers himself not, as he tormentedly imagined, a castrated boy, but a hormonally interfered-with girl. Cure ensues. The revelation is handled skilfully by Banks, so as to create maximum consternation in the reader. The transsexual dénouement has been picked up by subsequent writers. (Most recently and lucratively in Neil Jordan’s cinetext, The Crying Game.) The device can be traced to two sources – one academic, one profoundly sub-academic. Banks studied English at Stirling in the early Seventies. It was a period in which S/Z, Roland Barthes’s study of ‘Sarrasine’, was the intellectual rage. The climax of Balzac’s short story, in which girl is discovered to be boy, has a strong bearing on The Wasp Factory. The other influence on Banks’s binaristic obsessions is the SF writer Philip K. Dick – master of alternative universes and split characters. (One of these fictions, ‘We can remember for you wholesale’, recently achieved box-office success in crudified form as Total Recall.) Dick’s life is itself a fascinating case study in binarism. His twin (a girl) died at birth, and left the writer with a sense of forever being in search of his other self, an obsession heightened by heroic ingestion of psychotropic drugs in the Sixties.

Banks’s own career bifurcates, if less pathologically than Philip K. Dick’s. As with the novelist/entertainer Graham Greene (acknowledged as one of his favourite writers), there are two Bankses. Iain Banks is the author of six ‘straight’ novels. Iain M. Banks is the author of six science fiction novels. We are, I think, meant to see the writers in a Siamese connection, joined from birth but separate. In one of his works – Canal Dreams – Banks merged his modes, intertwining SF with straight fiction. And in The Bridge (his least successful effort) he ventured into Kafkaesque allegory. But otherwise he has kept his parts apart.

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