The Wasp Factory

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory, opening lines.

The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Iain Banks, published in 1984, and the minute I saw the opening sentences I knew I would read the whole book. He had plenty of time to think through the opening, and it is crackerjack. How can you not be irresistibly intrigued by a first person narrator (probably unreliable), “Sacrifice Poles,” an escaped brother (escaped from what?), and a “Factory” (capitalized) that foretells the future.

I had seen mentions of the book here and there – mostly associated with strings of adjectives such as: dark, disturbing, violent, disgusting, hard to read, gruesome, grotesque, unparalleled depravity, monstrous, shocking… and plenty more. Well, so far so good. Then I found it mentioned in a book titled 500 Essential Cult Books. That was enough for me to move it to the front of my to-be-read queue.

Always, when I read a first-person work of fiction, I like to start to work out how reliable the narrator is. In “The Wasp Factory” the protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is surprisingly honest, reliable, and self-aware. Especially considering he is a sixteen year old serial killer (though he claims his days of killing human beings are over) eunuch, living on an isolated island with his father, trying to deal with life through an endless series of violent, cruel, and depraved rituals – a litany of horrific obsessive compulsive behaviors that, while nasty and disgusting, are the only defense that he has against the hopeless situation that he is trapped in.

As the book goes on Frank’s constructed mythology begins to make internal sense. His series of altars, rites, and symbolic defenses begins to come together as a terrible religion that he has developed in response to a hostile world. For me, one of the surprisingly disturbing sections was a relatively innocent night Frank spends drinking at a pub on the mainland with a friend of his. He drinks way too much and struggles through a horrible night of sickness and vulnerability. It serves as a reminder of how helpless he is once he ventures away from his carefully constructed bulwarks of ritual.

It is a first novel, however, and sometimes you can almost hear Iain Banks thinking, “Let’s see – how can I up the horror a little bit more, what to do next? What taboos can I break now? What will crawl out from under this next rock?” It’s a harrowing ride, but if you are willing to go along with it – there are rewards. Frank is an undeniably unforgettable character and one that you will be glad you met in fiction – because you certainly won’t want to meet him in real life.

Don’t invite him to your family picnic.

The novel picks up momentum, unveiling secret after mystery after shocking revelation. Frank’s brother is on his way home, his father is beginning to seriously unravel, and even the island itself seems about to unleash some final cataclysmic horror as the novel comes to a terrifying climax.

It is at this point that the novel did let me down a little bit. The promised Götterdämmerung never does arrive. Instead there is a “twist” ending – which, although it certainly isn’t expected and does explain more than a few mysteries – for me, it failed to really satisfy the promise of the earlier story. It left me flat – which is a shame, because the rest of the novel was really something – though I’m not sure exactly what.

If nothing else, The Wasp Factory is a unique and polarizing piece of literature. A lot of people have written about the book, with a lot of widely varied opinions. I spent way too much time surfing around looking at WordPress Blogs that discuss The Wasp Factory. Read through some of these – you might learn something.

Blog Reviews of The Wasp Factory