Title: Wasp Factory
Author: Iain Banks
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Page Count: 192
Publication Date: 1998
Category/Genre: Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.85)
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.0)
Frank, no ordinary sixteen-year-old, lives with his father outside a remote Scottish village. Their life is, to say the least, unconventional. Frank’s mother abandoned them years ago: his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital, and his father measures out his eccentricities on an imperial scale. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals, there is some solace. But when news comes of Eric’s escape from the hospital Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother’s inevitable return – an event that explores the mysteries of the past and changes Frank utterly.
The Wasp Factory is a work of horrifying compulsion: horrifying because it enters a mind whose realities are not our own, whose values of life and death are alien to our society; compulsive because the humor and compassion of that mind reach out to us all. A novel of extraordinary originality, imagination, and comic ferocity.
The Wasp Factory is dark, dysfunctional and unfolds in a way that is quite unlike any other books I have read. I described it once to someone as a being like a slow burn and then before you knew it you were engulfed in the flames and stuck mesmerized, unable to move away.
Frank Cauldhame is a 16-year old that lives outside a remote Scottish village, on an island with just his father. To say he’s not your average coming of age teen would be putting it mildly —which he, and this story, are anything but.
See, Frank is an affectless sociopath who very casually mentions having killed 3 children during his young life but doesn’t plan on killing anymore.
“Two years after I killed Blyth, I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage that I was going through.”
But it is more complicated and twisted than that. Frank’s entire life is about rituals and ceremonies. He spends his days trapping and killing animals on the island and placing their heads on “Sacrifice Poles” set up along the perimeter of the property. To the reader, and most likely everyone else that would come upon this, the rituals are bizarre and gruesome. But for Frank, they all have meaning and importance. They are all parts of his detailed, rigid belief system which is both fascinating and very unsettling.
While unraveling the forboding history of Frank’s childhood, a subplot involves the escape of Frank’s brother, Eric, from a mental hospital in Glasgow. During the course of the novel, Eric is slowly making his way back home for a “family” reunion while trying to evade the authorities.
Told in the first person by Frank, his thoughts have a quiet yearning and naiveté to them that makes even his most horrific plans and rationalizations seem almost innocent. Banks has a way of making Frank very likable despite his strange and homicidal tendencies and at some point, you develop sympathy for such a sensitively-wrought kid with many problems.
Throughout, Frank struggles to move beyond his outsider status, to connect with others, and to understand his distant father and his older brother. Fluidly, and before realizing it, the narrative veers into a condemnation of society as a whole, into a discussion of the ‘will to power’ philosophies of Nietzsche and about nature vs. nurture.
All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in. The strong make their own patterns and influence other people’s, the weak have their courses mapped out for them. The weak and the unlucky, and the stupid. The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern because it is part of life and – even more so – part of death.
Satisfyingly, the ending resolves some of the puzzles in the plotlines — of course, while staying true to being done in a truly dreadful manner. But it also seems to open up a door to hope, paralleling the typically transformative trope in which the protagonist comes to understand himself and is then able to move forward with life.
In as much as the Wasp Factory in the book is a trap designed by Frank as part of his rituals and to give order, The Wasp Factory itself is designed by Banks as a subtle trap for an unsuspecting reader to explore thoughts about human nature and where we are heading as a race.
The writing is terrific. It is vivid, robust, clean and clear. Sometimes more than others, it was difficult. My heart was beating out of my chest and my stomach dropped more than once, but the tone is surprisingly upbeat and at times even surprisingly funny.
This is a pretty unique book and no doubt very polarizing. It isn’t for everyone, most likely has a narrow demographic and includes trigger warnings for animal cruelty and child murders.