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,