”[…] That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and I don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”
The Wasp Factory is a hard book to review. You might already know about the big reveal at the end, as it was first published way back in 1984 and it’s a popular art school illustration assignment, as well has having been rewritten as a play, produced in the UK in 2008. When I read it the first time, around 1994, I had no idea. To this day, it is one of my favorite books and will probably always be in my Top 10, but it’s not a story that’s easy to summarize or explain. My well-worn copy has this review from the Irish Times.
It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparallelled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.
As well as this one, from the Mail on Sunday.
If a nastier, more vicious or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised. But there is unlikely to be a better one either. You can hardly breathe for fear of missing a symbol, or a fine phrase, or a horror so chilling that your hair stands on end. Infinitely painful to read, grotesque but human, these pages have a total reality rare in fiction. A mighty imagination has arrived on the scene.
If you’re like me, you are thinking, “I’ve got to read this book.” but The Wasp Factory is not for everyone.
Iain Banks first novel is all about Frank Cauldhame, a 16-year-old living on the isolated north-east coast of Scotland. He lives with his father and proudly announces early on that he had killed three of his family members, all children like himself, before he was ten years old. He has one surviving half-brother, Eric, whom we are informed is crazy, after experiencing something very unpleasant while working in a hospital. It is Eric’s escape from the asylum the precipitates the action of the novel.
In these days of torture porn and gross-out television it’s possible to believe that the extreme violence of the story might today fall flat and seem tame and relatively Gothic. Banks however, does not shy away from pushing the boundaries and Frank, because he is a sympathetic character, allows us to be drawn in to the violence, even as we’re trying to imagine what could possibly drive someone to do such sick things. What we do learn is how Frank’s life is dominated by his strict adherence to his personal rituals and totems—the wasp factory, built from an old clock face, being the most significant. To Frank, the wasp factory guides him through a life of confusing parental dictates, shifting sands of personal history and a conflicted mental struggle to maintain an outer facade that is at complete odds with his true nature.
Banks is a gifted writer and it was no small feat to craft this brilliant, caustic, breath-taking novel that scared the crap out of quite a few people, sickened others and captured life-long fandom of a great many. I recommend this book only to friends I have known for a while, who know me and appreciate my taste in fiction. I think you would love it.
If you’re still undecided, John Mullen wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2008 that gives enough exposition to guide and help you decide if it’s worth putting on a must-read list.