Fearful Symmetries

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16 November, 2012

A Real Horror Show: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks' first published novel. Not having read anything by him previously, I can't really say how it compares to his later work. However, I am game for reading more by him now that I've completed this book.

The story concerns Frank Cauldhame, a 16 year-old who lives with his rather dour father, Angus, on an island that lies somewhere just off the coast of Scotland. Frank narrates and begins his tale rather enigmatically by saying, "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." The book had been recommended to me on the basis of it having an unreliable narrator but it's not completely true. It's not that Frank lies to the reader; it's more that he delays providing explanations for his cryptic story.

These first sentences get the reader asking what these Sacrifice Poles are, wanting to know about Frank's brother and from where he escaped, and just what the nature of the titular factory is. We immediately learn that the poles are sticks on a dune that hold the corpses of various animals and insects while the other questions are answered later. Frank spends his time amongst the dunes and roaming about the island that is his home being a menace to the fauna. When Frank is not out hunting rabbits with a wrist rocket, he can often be found in an old World War II bunker where there are more animal heads on spikes and he can perform sacrificial rites. Back at home, the attic serves a similar function and houses the Wasp Factory, a massive clock that once adorned the local branch of the Bank of Scotland but has been refitted for a more sinister purpose.

Frank is a lot like his father. Angus is either going into town or locked away in his study which Frank has never even peered into much less stepped inside of. While the son is sadistic, the father is very strange. He commits household measurements to memory and expects the same from Frank.

We eventually find out that Franks brother, Eric, has escaped from a mental institution. He was sent away after his behavior moved from stuffing the mouths of local kids with worms and maggots to setting dogs on fire. Eric's presence is felt mostly over the phone. He calls Frank frequently to say that he is making his way home and will be there soon. Frank describes his older brother as crazy but loves him anyway. The return of the reprobate revenant hangs over the proceedings. When will he pop up? Is he looking to exact revenge on his family?

Banks does a great job here of slowly revealing the story of Frank's life. Little details emerge that are only explained later. For example, Eric notes that he does not officially exist. No birth certificate and the usual panoply of government records are absent. How could that be? Banks also drops in bits of foreshadowing such as when Franks says, "I represent a crime, and if Eric was to come back stirring things up The Truth About Frank might come out." And the truth about Frank does come out eventually.

Banks seems to be saying something about how our environment shapes us, especially our parents. Frank is not a particularly sympathetic character. He strangles a rabbit with the elastic sling of his wrist rocket, is deeply misogynistic (“My greatest enemies are women and the sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them."), and confesses to having murdered three children when he was a boy. But we learn that he was abandoned by his mother and Angus is not exactly the paragon of parenthood. When The Truth About Frank does get revealed, it's obvious that many adults in the boy's life failed him. And they failed Eric as well.

The problem is that both Frank and Eric are such repulsive characters that it's difficult to see them as victims of forces outside their control. You can add Angus to that list as well. Three monsters. The story gives a point at which these people snapped, essentially – the point at which they started to become monsters – and shows how external forces, i.e. – other people, helped make these individuals what they are. Unfortunately Banks doesn't dramatize the environmental factors enough. The act of killing the rabbit is elaborated upon as are the plans Frank hatched for killing the three kids but the incidents that drove Frank, Eric, and Angus to be what they are get short shrift. They're mentioned almost off-handedly so the causal connections aren't given enough emphasis and so the focus mostly remains on the atrocious protagonists.

The Wasp Factory has a lot of good ideas in it – the effects we have on one another, de-romanticizing childhood, and perhaps even mocking religion – but, in the end, I think A Clockwork Orange, while not covering the exact same ground, did this kind of thing better.
|| Palmer, 1:33 PM


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