The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The Wasp Factory is the kind of book that publishers love. It's weird enough to be lumped into that bracket of ‘Modern Classics’, along with books like The Crying of Lot 49, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, and other oblique, semi-mysterious titles from the ‘80s, but it is simpler than both of them. The author has gone on to write lots of simpler, more bookstore-friendly works, and all of them, in one way or another, hark back to this first, iconic work.
Basically, The Wasp Factory is strange and violent – there was a booming market for such books in 1984, when the novel appeared – a story about a young boy living somewhere in rural Britain, torturing animals and wondering whether he isn't, in fact, a woman. It was Banks' first fictional outing and inspired a gamut of responses, ranging from the “This guy is a fucking genius,” angle to “This guy is a sick fucking genius,” to “This guy is just plain weird.” Reading it now, I vacillate between “This guy is just trying to shock me,” and “This guy never wrote anything so good again.” In fact, Banks' science fiction is better than this; at least his early stuff is. I can see where the sci-fi comes from, though: Banks' imagination is second to none. There is a sense of ease to his writing, even effortlessness, that turns in his later work to laziness. But here, in his first novel, Banks is trying to impress. The scene with the dead baby is perhaps one of the most horrific in modern literature, and although Banks tries, he never quite outdoes himself in the terror stakes in any subsequent work. In short, The Wasp Factory is a good place to start and finish with Iain Banks. That said, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games are some of the best science fiction novels written in the last 30 years.