Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, is one of the most repulsive and creepy novels I've ever read. I read it on the recommendation of Elizabeth, and while I don't entirely regret reading it, I will repeat the blurb from The Scotsman that appears on the back of my 1998 paperback edition: "There's nothing to force you, having been warned, to read it; nor do I recommend it." However, The Scotsman more recently reviews a theatrical production of The Wasp Factory, saying it misses the mark set by the novel, a "brilliant, chilling piece of island Scottish horror."

From the beginning, the protagonist of the novel, Frank Cauldhame, doesn't allow me to like him. He is first seen "making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles...sticking one of the mouse heads back on." Although he mentions the Wasp Factory on the very first page, it's not until much later that I find out how it works; any path a wasp chooses once it's caught and put into his maze leads to a different kind of death. Gradually I find out who "Old Saul" was and why Frank keeps his skull. Eventually Frank tells me why he killed three children, one of them his younger brother.

And yet Frank is not totally monstrous, which actually makes the story even more horrible. At one point, for instance, I entirely agree with him that "life has few pleasures to compare with dam-building. Give me a good broad beach with a reasonable slope and not too much seaweed, and a fair-sized stream, and I'll be happy all day, any day." Also the reason he kills the first child is because that child deliberately killed his pet rabbits in their hutches, which doesn't make it right, but makes his impulse a bit more understandable, at least to me.

I see how alone Frank is when he says things like this:
"I've always had a rather ambivalent attitude towards something happening to my father, and it persists. A death is always exciting, always makes you realise how alive you are, how vulnerable but so-far-lucky; but the death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!"

But any scrap of sympathy I might momentarily feel for Frank is methodically eradicated by the next account of his killings or his philosophy: "Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill." Any sympathy I might feel for his predicament in a nearly silent and entirely undemonstrative family is eventually undermined by something like the detailed and sickening description of what drove his half-brother crazy. The final revelation of the novel, while shocking, is almost an anti-climax for me because of the matter-of-fact way my anticipation of horrors to come has been built up throughout the novel.

I don't enjoy being horrified, and yet I took pleasure in the ironic tone of this book.


Amanda said...

Wait...the blurb on the back of the book was actually NEGATIVE? Is that some sort of reverse psychology marketing thing? Like those restaurants that say they have the worst hamburgers in the state or something?

Jeanne said...

Amanda, In the context of the other blurbs, perhaps it doesn't sound as negative. Here's another: "Macabre, bizarre, and impossible to put down." The Financial Times. And the last one on the back: "Read it if you dare." Daily Express.
I do think it's a book that wants to advertise its shock value. Very 80s, if you think about it.

edj3 said...

Amanda, the book is disturbing, there's no getting around that. Banks is one of my favorite sci-fi writers, although he doesn't dive quite so deeply into the dark places as he does in Wasp Factory.

Jeanne, you summed up my own contradictory feelings about this book quite well. I ended up writing an essay about the almost shame I felt in admitting that while entirely grossed out, I also found the book compelling. I read it one sitting. At the time, I'd just finished an absolutely riveting undergrad course on gender and how it's defined, which played a pretty big part in why I found this book fascinating.

I promise any other recommendations won't be this dark or negative.

edj3 said...

Oh -- and friends still? :-)

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, Yes, still friends, although I must admit I'm a little relieved that part of your fascination was the question of gender definition!

Anna said...

I haven't heard of this one. You've made me curious, though I'm not sure this is one I'd enjoy.

Diary of an Eccentric

Jeanne said...

Anna, anyone who reads it is suffering from morbid curiosity.

edj3 said...

Well I don't think it's any worse than Equus, which also disturbed me greatly. I could never ever get inside the skin of Alan or Martin or really any of the characters in Equus. I'm not sure I entirely got there with Frank but I got a lot closer probably because the question about how gender shapes us still fascinates me.

Jodie said...

Ick no I just couldn't go on with this book after the poles and then someone told me the twist so I gave myself permission to ditch it forever.