Monday, 7 November 2011

James Naughtie and The Wasp Factory

James Naughtie is one of my favourite Radio 4 personalities. Not only is he the "good cop" to John Humphrys' more robust and assertive cop on the Today programme but his too-rare pieces of reportage showcase a great skill of approaching complex issues from a sympathetic and human viewpoint. His reports from the campaign trail in the last US elections were essential listening in this regard as were those from Japan in the wake of the Earthquakes earlier this year.

(These foreign assignments are a matter of ongoing controversy on Radio 4's Feedback programme - not to mention The Daily Mail, of course - the argument against such trips typically being: "How many correspondants does the BBC need in any one place? And what point is there in presenting the show from, say, Japan when it could equally well be done in London? For my money (and it is in part) Mr Naughtie is a shining example of how being at the source of the news informs and illuminates in a way analysing it from thousands of miles away can never do. But I digress...)

Aside from his political nous, though, Naughtie also has a wide range of artistic and literary interests which the Today production team also ensure are utilised when the opportunity arises. These interests are also given expression when presenting the Proms and Radio 4's monthly Bookclub.

The format of the Bookclub is an interview the author of a given book, guiding the listener through the thought process of the writer, the issues and plotting devices, the characters and intent as well as chairing a discussion and taking questions from the audience. Naughtie does this expertly, showing a real knowledge of the book under discussion and ensuring that the major themes and questions are addressed.

This month's book happens to be one of my favourites and by one of my favourite authors: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. It's waiting on my iPod to listen to but I've no doubt it'll be a corker. You can find it on iPlayer or you can download the podcast

Here's a taster of the programme courtesy of Naughtie's own e-mail. If you're at all familiar with his accent and the cadence of his voice, you should be able to detect that in his writing:

"I’m fairly sure that Iain Banks is the first guest on Bookclub of whom I have asked the question: have you ever let yourself be psycho-analysed? I was therefore slightly disappointed when the answer was no, but it was worth a try.  (Radio 4 Bookclub this Sunday 6 November at 4pm and Thursday 10 November at the new time of 3.30pm.)

If you know The Wasp Factory, the book that launched Iain’s serious writing career 27 years ago, you will know why the question arose. Frank’s story, which gives the book its shape and its spirit, is one of grotesque adolescent excess, particularly in the matter of violence. He has killed three people (at least, we’re told, one of them a sibling) and much of his delight while he is growing up comes from meting out undeserved punishment on any living thing that passes by. Take the alarm clock contraption which involves wasps being pinned to the hands and, as a consequence, being killed to a timetable set by Frank, allowing him to wake up to see his latest victim being squashed as the clock strikes the hour, with another one coming along behind. The book is a picture of disturbance, a kind of punk’s-eye view of the world, which is a place of gothic horror and badness. Yet, as Iain told us, “Frank thinks he is relatively normal – it’s as simple as that.”

You can see why I wondered if he’d ever had his head examined to see where the story came from, and he recalled happily a launch party for one of his books in Edinburgh when an American student asked him if he had experienced a very troubled childhood, expecting the answer yes. Iain pointed out his grey-haired mother in the crowd, who duly obliged with the truth: “Och no, Iain was always a happy wee boy.”

We were talking in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, where our readers had been re-reading the book, sometimes after several years, and returning to the themes that Iain has picked up in his overtly science fiction books (which he writes under the name of Iain M. Banks, a distinction which I think he now mildly regrets) and which have given him a cult following. The Wasp Factory presents a world where the certainties that Frank lives with are ones that would repel or terrify the average reader – burning dogs, tortured wasps, murders, a bizarre substitute religion in which he believes that the future is foretold by one of his grotesque killing machines, which kills its animal victims in a dozen different ways. So why was the book so popular?

His answer is that he thinks readers get the joke – “it was a hoot and a giggle” – in a way that critics certainly didn’t. A number of reviewers wondered how a publisher could stoop so low in letting the book onto the streets. Why can’t they get it, he wonders? “It’s a simple method, gross exaggeration. Being a science fiction writer helps – the term is extrapolation but it’s basically exaggeration.” When Eric, a brother whom Frank hasn’t killed, emerges from an old-style psychiatric hospital, it allows Frank to appear normal by comparison, but readers learn of the strange happenings in his past. By the end of the story, Franks makes a discovery that is clearly one of the most important of his life and will shape his future. We do mention in the course of the programme what this revelation is, simply because the book has been around for long enough for that to seem reasonable, but I won’t talk about it here, in case some of you are reading the book for the first time. Let’s just say that it changes his identity.

The story is set in a community in the far north of Scotland, which Iain knows well, on an island. Frank’s father Angus, an eccentric doctor, is part of the psychological puzzle of the novel, going every now and again to Inverness to sell drugs, which he makes at home, and perhaps sharing some of the Frank’s attitude towards women – in the absence of a mother in the house, he rails against the betrayals of women, even Mrs Clampy, the housekeeper, who is a bastion of sanity in the place. Iain is happy to describe it as a psychological study : Frank creates not just a physical environment that suits him, and his urges, but a mythological one too. Iain is as convinced as aetheist as you are ever likely to meet (he will acknowledgement that perhaps 1% of him is simply agnostic, but no more). Iain says, as you might expect, that he’s always found Frank a fascinating character, but he echoed the feelings of surely nearly every reader of the book when he said that he wouldn’t like to find himself living next door to him.

I don’t know if you agree with the reviewer who said that he found it incomprehensible that a publisher could have stooped to such levels of depravity (that was The Irish Times) or with one of our readers who said that, having not expected to enjoy it, she found herself reading the gory and funny bits to her husband on a long car journey and laughing out loud. Either way, it was a landmark book – a piece of gothic fiction and fantasy that established Iain Banks’ career and seem to fit happily into the early 80s punk-influenced popular culture. I hope you enjoy the programme."

If you've not heard the programme before, do give it a go. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!


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