Jarv’s Favourite Books: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is, quite frankly, a phenomenon. He turns out roughly a book a year either under the name Iain M. Banks for his science fiction Culture novels (including Consider Phlebas) or sans initial. The books he writes without the initial tend to be more serious “proper” fiction and not genre work, although many of them do tend to dabble in the realms of fantasy and science fiction rather than a more traditionally literary theme. The Wasp Factory was his debut novel, and I still think it’s arguably his best work- it’s certainly the least forgettable novel that he’s written.

I’ve got a long history with this novel- back in the mid 90’s (all that time ago) The Wasp Factory formed part of my A-Level dissertation, for reasons that I’ll come to in a moment, but it’s a book that I’ve read and reread more times than is probably healthy considering the subject matter. Nevertheless, The Wasp Factory is, in my opinion a truly great book- its slight size belieing a thematic depth that was quite unprecedented for a debut novel at the time, and the myriad debating points thrown up by the novel mean that the book truly does bear rereading and analysis.

The Wasp Factory tells the story of self-confessed murderer Francis Cauldhame. Frank has serious problems (that I can’t go into without spoiling, so sorry)- he’s psychopathic, isolated and has severe identity issues, being that he was gelded in a dog attack as a child. His mother, Agnes, left him to the less than tender care of his mad scientist father Angus and he lives in splendid isolation on a Scottish island. At the start of the novel, Frank has 3 kills to his name (all seriously bizarre) all of whom were weaker children. However, he states that he’s stopped killing- it was “just a stage” he was going through, although the potential still exists within him to snap at any given moment. His elder brother, Eric, went completely insane (a truly harrowing section of the novel) and is now hospitalised somewhere, and The Wasp Factory narrates the days following Eric’s escape before he returns to the island. It has to be pointed out that although Frank is technically nuts, Eric is a far scarier prospect- he’s a full on weapons grade lunatic, and Frank is right to be seriously worried about his return. In the meantime, however, Frank is passing his time by building dams, slaughtering small animals, following bizarre and unlikely omens,  and consuming seriously dangerous levels of alcohol.

So far so good, however, I haven’t really touched on what makes this novel stand out. The Wasp Factory is narrated by Frank, and is laced with absurd comedy and black humour. To call the Wasp Factory darkly funny is a gross understatement: it’s frequently hilarious, but seriously uncomfortable. Eric’s return, for example, is marked by the appearance of running sheep that he’s set on fire. Although there is nothing at all funny about animal cruelty, there is something amusing in Frank’s description of the flaming flock crossing before his view. Frank is a spiky and unique voice, the ultimate unreliable narrator (although to be fair he’s unreliable because he isn’t in possession of the full facts) and his sense of comedy carries the relentless misery of the novel. Furthermore, Frank believes strongly in his “personal mythology”. He’s obsessed with omens and portents that he believes make him unique and special. The irony being that Frank is unique, but it’s nothing at all to do with his bizarre belief system. That just makes him a sadist, whereas the truth of the matter is both more sinister and more pathetic. It’s Frank’s warped outlook and individual narrative voice that made me choose this novel for my A-Level, and his individuality represents the Wasp Factory’s greatest strength.

I hate to do this, but I’m afraid I now have to. The Wasp Factory is also heavily about gender roles and identity in the late 20th Century. Frank is aggressively and psychotically masculine- he drinks to ludicrous excess, enjoys blowing things up, and is consummately jealous of the ability to chase a cigarette butt down a urinal. Frank defines himself by his gender- he is a man, and as such engages solely in purely masculine pastimes (playing war, hunting, building things etc). It’s important to note, however, that the thought of sexual contact with a female induces real feelings of nausea in him. However, the novel itself is a deconstruction of gender identity- Eric was  dressed as a girl as a child, Frank himself was neutered, he comes to believe that his father and mother were/ are the same person etc. The sociopathic violence that forms the core of Frank’s personality has a physiological explanation, but even if it didn’t the point is that Frank is grotesquely overcompensating; trying to achieve some kind of idealised masculinity that is both absurd and unrealistic.

Overall, this is a stunning novel, funny in parts, disturbing in others but above all else seriously interesting and never less than enthralling. The unique voice of the protagonist, coupled with the depth and complexity of the central themes (all layered in a rich helping of black comedy) ensure that this is a simply stellar novel. Iain Banks has now written almost a library worth of book, but The Wasp Factory is, for me, the one that I will always return to and the one that I find both morbidly fascinating and endlessly entertaining.

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

19 responses to “Jarv’s Favourite Books: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks”

  1. Jarv says :

    I’ve tried to avoid the spoiler that comes with the denoument to this book- as knowledge of it intrinsically changes the reading experience.

    If anyone hasn’t read it and wants to know I will spoil below the line- but I’ll invisitxt it.

  2. Toadkillerdog says :

    I love Banks! Consider phlebas is one of the great Space Operas of all time and the Culture is one of the greatest space faring Empires (although they would hate that title) of them all.

    I have read about six of Banks’ books, but not Wasp Factory.

    I must remedy that

    Thanks Jarv, very good review.

    You are still verging on being an unreconstructed c*nt for what you did to FU, but I am the forgiving type

    • Jarv says :

      I’ve only read a few of the Culture novels, I keep meaning to catch up with them all.

      Of the non Culture books, the Iain Banks rather than Iain M Banks ones, The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, Complicity, Whit and Transition are good- great. I detest The Bridge, Dead Air, Walking on Glass (inexplicable and frankly unpleasant) and Song of Stone. Espedair Street is OK.

      They vary hugely in terms of style and theme. The Wasp Factory is almost totally different to The Crow Road (which has one of the finest opening lines of any novel), which is itself totally unrelated to Complicity. They made a crap film out of Complicity a few years ago.

  3. Toadkillerdog says :

    Consider phlebas even in this day of CGI would cost more than Avatar to make, but my goodness if someone had the guts and talent to pull that off – well, it would probably turn out to be like Watchmen, unfilmable, but I would still see it.

    And no I did not imply that Synder has talent, just that watchmen is un filimable

    • Jarv says :

      Watchmen is filmable- just not the way Snyder did it- because he’s an uberhack with no imagination and just vomited the funny book onto the screen.

      The BBC made an excellent series of The Crow Road.

  4. Xiphos0311 says :

    I understand, on the intellectual level, that this book is considered a “masterpiece” of modern fiction but on a personal level of reading it at the same age as the protagonist, a few years after it was published, I concluded I didn’t like anybody in the book and Frank needed to be beaten to death slowly.

    I had zero connection with anybody or anything in it, I thought it was completely overwritten and suffered from a first time writers chief weakness, an inability to trust in their own voice, so they stuff their books full of imagery(much of it simple minded in my opinion) to make up for not truly believing what they are writing. In short I didn’t like it.

    I would give examples of what I’m talking about but then I would get all spoilery and I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to possibly put a negative spin on someones potential to enjoy this book which needs to be read as fresh as possible.

    On this piece of work Jarv I think we must part ways but I will concede that to really judge it should read it again.

    • Jarv says :

      He did get more sophisticated, and there is no doubt that Frank is despicable. However, it’s a strong narrative voice and I find it darkly amusing on more than one occasion.

      It’s certainly complicated, and I can’t get into it either without getting overly spoilery.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I agree the narrative is strong he can string words together in an interesting way it’s just that in my opinion everything else was fairly weak. I suppose some parts were amusing but censoring a discussion about the story it becomes hard to make my objections more then vague. If anybody is going to read the book it’s much better to not really know anything about it.

      • Jarv says :

        Totally agree- it does fundamentally change the reaction to the novel knowing the twist. It made writing the review a real bastard as well.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I can see how it would be a bastard to write around and you did a good job with it.

      • Jarv says :

        The problem is that the entire thematic core of the novel hinges on it. Not to mention that knowledge of it fundamentally alters the reading experience if the novel. I nearly assumed that everyone had read it and went ahead with the spoiler.

        It is, for me, that the interpretation changes so drastically that makes this a great book- loads of “little” moments become much more important when you know the truth.

  5. Spud McSpud says :

    I’m completely an Iain Banks virgin, M. or not, though CONSIDER PHLEBAS sounds interesting. Didn’t they also film THE CROW ROAD and THE WASP FACTORY??

    Either way, this sounds interesting. Good review, Jarv – and though I’m very much a fan of spoilers, thanks for not revealing it thus far. Though if you were to invisitext it, it won’t remain spoiled for long…

  6. Spud McSpud says :

    Should’ve said “unspoiled”. You get my drift.

    • Jarv says :

      I nearly spoiled it as it is really the point of the whole novel- but knowing it changes your reading of the novel, and it does then make a fascinating reread.

      The Crow Road was a BBC miniseries, I don’t think it was turned into a film. It’s a good one as well.

  7. ThereWolf says :

    Good one, Jarv.

    I am gonna get around to some Iain Banks, this one has been on my list for awhile… actually no, ‘Consider Phlebas’ was first on the list – just coz the title’s got a certain rhythm to it. Dig?

  8. Droid says :

    Haven’t read it. Sounds good though.

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