On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

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