The Wasp Factory is a deliciously dark tale, suitably disturbing and entirely insular in its execution. It is very British. Reading this after Herland, the sense of abandonment, and its desperate consequences, struck me. I knew the twist already (thanks Godmother!) but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
The narrator and protagonist, Frank, seeks to intellectualise his torturous intentions in rural Scotland. Seeking to make meaning in a life isolated from conventional society, he states:
“All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in. The strong make their own patterns and influence other people’s, the weak have their courses mapped out for them. The weak and the unlucky, and the stupid. The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern because it is part of life and – even more so – part of death.”
This idea that any kind of activity is preferable to following a preset course, including the psychotic and dangerously unhinged behavior of Frank, is a painful consequence of post-modern society. Its poisoned misogyny flavours the desire to course a purposeful course, and the desire to attack and destroy perceived weakness operates as a criticism of hypermasculine perception.
Stories with unhinged character-narrators position themselves for a shred of empathy if not sympathy, and The Wasp Factory is no different. Frank, despite being an unremittingly sadistic child, wants to gain self-awareness of a sort. Murdering children and his siblings is purposefully grotesque and yet compelling in a macabre fashion. They also serve as signposts in the rambling reflections of Frank, a narrative that is also driven forward by the travelling of his brother Eric, who may or may not be real. Within the bizarre phone conversations between Eric and Frank, we see the aggressively frustrating, yet peculiarly loving, dynamic between two brothers. These are well-done, although by no means vindicate Frank at all.
Banks’ style is generally clean and easy, and almost wry. The descriptions of death are calm and presented in what Frank sees as his coherent philosophy:
Often I’ve thought of myself as a state; a country or, at the very least, a city. It used to seem to me that the different ways I felt sometimes about ideas, courses of action and so on were like the different political moods countries go through. It has always seemed to me that people vote in a new government not because they actually agree with the politics but just because they want a change. Somehow they think that things will be better under the new lot. Well, people are stupid, but it all seems to have more to do with the mood, caprice and atmosphere than carefully thought-out arguments.
Of course, Frank’s cogency is strangely undermined by his lack of purpose: he openly reacts to his family and others, attacking weakness and destroying others with little care or even feeling. At this point, I should say that for some reason I conflated Iain Banks with Ian McEwan as a teenage (I did the same with Plymouth FC and Sheffield Wednesday). Both authors present macabre events, although Banks seems far more nihilistic in this novel at least.
As a final aside, the wild island landscape is evoked well. It reminded me of games like Dear Esther where isolation and the desire to create a coherent Blake-like philosophy are unsettling to city types, especially those who read books for culture and pleasure. This book isn’t pleasurable; it is an experience worth having.