Published in 1984, The Wasp Factory is quite a grim and startling story about 16 year old Frank Cauldhame. It was the first ever book by Scottish author Iain Banks.
Frank’s an odd character – seemingly highly intelligent from his first person narrative, but holds observance of some odd rituals. I’ll talk about the rituals in a minute. Frank lives with his father on a remote ‘island’ joined to the mainland and nearby town by a bridge.
In some ways, the isolation of Frank’s home is a parallel with his own isolation from society. He holds court all over the island like a lone Lord Of The Flies, with ‘Sacrifice Poles” and secret bunkers and his hidden wasp factory in the attic of the house. To pass the time, he holds fictional wars, one of which – himself versus a rabid rabbit – are described in gruesome detail. The Wasp Factory of the title is a strange contraption built around the face of a huge town hall clock face – Frank places a wasp inside it and uses it to divine future events.
Like a child, Frank has a vivid imagination, and has names for significant places on the island: the place where he destroyed his catapult, the Sacrifice Poles, the place where he killed his brother. The thing is, as you read, you identify things like that from boyhood. I remember giving parts of the housing estate we lived on special names – cliched stuff like ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ (which was a bitch to navgate on roller skates, by the way) – but by the age of 16, most of those tendencies have left you.
So you know something is wrong with Frank. You just don’t know what. Yet.
As a hilarious counterpart to Frank is his clinically insane canine-roasting brother Eric (if you eat dogs, are you a caninivore?). Eric has managed to escape the minimum security institution he’s being held in, and is on his way back to the island for a showdown with his father. Frank keeps his knowledge of Eric’s late-night phone calls to himself, all the while pitying his brother for being ‘mad’.
Of course, the fact that this overgrown kid – who kills and beheads animals to put their heads on spikes around his island – can’t see his own lunacy is very funny.
Oh, and did I mention that as a child, Frank spent sme of his time picking off unwanted siblings and annoying relatives? His headcount is three, but he describes the killings as ‘just a phase I was going through’. His ingenuity in disposing of children is legendary: snake-bites, explosions and…kites!
All of this is described in Frank’s first person voice, and very matter-of-factly. He’s a fairly easy-going chap, at peace with the universe, except for one thing. Well two. His two enemies (he tells us) are women and the sea. But, he says, he has some respect for the sea. Not women.
Unfortunately, when brother Eric gets home, he discovers that his father has been keeping a terrible secret from him. Frank is, in fact, a girl. Due to a violent childhood incident involving a dog and his groin, Frank was led to believe that he had lost his genitals. In fact, his father was pumping him full of steroids to give him a manly appearance the whole time and used the dog attack as a convenient cover story.
I have to say, I found the dark humour of the book funny in places. It wasn’t hard to invision a grey Scottish town with a wee island and a lonely house upon it. Nor was it difficult to picture Frank, his detatched father and psychotic brother as they headed toward the climax of the story.
Banks gave plenty of clues along the way about Frank’s problems – his age and lack of stubble which was a minor concern for him.
However, it’s an interesting notion that this isolated boy had built up an entire identity around being male, and an inherent hostility towards women, then discovered that he was actually the enemy. How terrible to discover that in the middle of your teenage life. The whole story is thoroughly creepy and the violence is still quite disturbing even today.
Interestingly, the edition of the book I have contains a ton of reviewer quotes from the time The Wasp Factory was published and mostly heaping scorn on the author. Funny that it’s considered one of the greatest books of the 20th Century now, isn’t it?