The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
I’ve now read everything by Iain M. Banks, containing some of the most entertaining and thought provoking science fiction that I’ve ever read. There are two sides to him though, as he also stands as a critical darling of non-genre fiction, without the ‘M’ in his name. The Wasp Factory was Iain Bank’s first novel, and the first of his that I’ve read without the ‘M’; it’s one of the most deeply unpleasant books that I’ve ever read, but it’s also a work of absolute genius.
The Wasp Factory is narrated by Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen year old boy who had been crippled at a young age in an, at first, unspecified accident. Frank is a strange young man, observing a bunch of bizarre rituals of his own invention, and tormenting the animals around his house. Frank nurtures even darker secrets, as we are informed right at the beginning of the novel that he is responsible for the deaths of three children in his family. The manner and motivations for these murders are explained as the novel goes on. In the present day, Frank’s brother Eric has escaped from a mental asylum and is planning to come home.
Banks conjures a great sense of place in his small Scottish island in which The Wasp Factory is set. Although likely a fairly normal island, Frank’s narrative turns it into a semi-mystical place, with every change of weather a portentous omen, protected only by the rituals which Frank enacts. Worldbuilding is a strongpoint of Iain M. Bank’s writing, and although he obviously isn’t crafting an alien culture as Iain Banks, he still creates a vivid and powerful setting.
The actual plot of The Wasp Factory is interesting, with the imminent return of the dangerously insane Eric lending the entire novel a foreboding feel. This feeling of foreboding is really the dominant characteristic of this novel; we don’t just fear the events coming, we fear discovery about the past. Frank’s actually not unlikeable as a character, and it’s easy to forget the terrible things that he’s done, so we fear discovering the stories behind his murders. Those who like a tightly structured plot may not be too enamoured with The Wasp Factory, but for atmosphere it really can’t be beat.
Bank’s ability to revel in darkly amusing sadism is something which I’d seen before in his science fiction, particularly the monstrous Archimandrite Luseferous from The Algebraist, but The Wasp Factory out nasties that novel hands down. The pain and torture in this novel is viscerally horrible, but Banks writes with this infectious energy that makes a little part of me amused. It’s this element of the novel which has most offended people, with the Daily Express comparing this novel to a ‘video nasty’ back when it was first released. The Daily Express, being the tawdry rag that it is, utterly missed the point here. There’s a constant ironic distance between the reader and Frank, but also between the murderous cruel part of Frank and another detached voice who is aware of how ridiculous his fantasies are. It’s this ironic voice which provides the sick laughs.
Frank is similar to Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with a dash of Holden Caulfield thrown in for good measure. He’s not beholden to these characters however, and develops a pretty fascinating narrative voice. All of Iain Bank’s best characters are damaged, and Frank certainly deserves to stand alongside his best creations. Bank’s characterisation isn’t always brilliant; I wasn’t too impressed with his most recent release, The Hydrogen Sonata, but it’s absolutely top notch here.
The Wasp Factory is a nasty, unpleasant book. The squeamish will hate it, and many will write it off as gratuitous horribleness. If you have a dark sense of humour, and an interest in the darker sides of humanity, give The Wasp Factory a go, you won’t regret it.