Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)

I don't remember how The Wasp Factory made it onto my radar, but it did a while ago. I purchased it, where it sat for a long time on my bookshelf, unread. Earlier in the year, when I heard about the author's terminal illness, I decided that I would read it this summer before he died; unfortunately, I didn't read the book before then, so I suppose my reading it is more a tribute to his memory than a celebration of his life.

Anyway. It had been so long since I bought the book that I couldn't even remember what it was about. But I decided it didn't matter, so I just dived in. Frank Cauldhame is a 16-year-old boy, the narrator of our tale, and a complete psychopath. Early in the book, he reveals that he's killed three of his young relatives, apparently entirely without remorse. And that's arguably the most normal thing about him.

There's the titular Wasp Factory, for example, which is an artifact in the bizarre religion that Frank has created. It's a faith that's heavily superstitious, involving elements of voodoo and witchcraft; there's also a lot of small-creature-killing in the name of the religion. And then there's Frank's living brother, Eric, who's been institutionalized for lighting dogs on fire; near the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father (with whom he lives) find out that Eric has escaped, and they believe him to be coming back home.

Banks' first novel is not much of a book for happenings--most of the book is either flashbacks to Frank's killings/other formative events in his younger years (formative in his psychosis, that is) or present-day musings about how best to fortify the totems that protect his home (all part of his strange, self-created cult)--but it doesn't matter because the book does more interesting things than create an engaging plot. It's one of the bleakest, most perfect psychological portraits I've ever read, and it all happens in such a short time (my copy is only 184 pages).

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of The Wasp Factory is how normal Frank can be. He has a friend named Jamie that he meets regularly at a local bar, and the conversations they have are absolutely normal--he seems to be able to dissociate himself from the insane Frank, making particularly astute observations about his brother's illness that sound exactly like the sorts of things unknowledgeable/unsympathetic people might say about someone with a mental sickness. It's an astounding feat of writing that I can forget Frank the killer has killed.

There is a lot of interesting psychological rumination in the novel, things I won't talk about in this review because they're secrets in the book. The twist at the end happens to be a little unexpected, and perhaps that's a flaw, but it doesn't seem implausible in the furthering of our understanding of Frank. I don't generally read books like this that center on the vicious violence, but out of all the ones I've read (I'm looking at you, A Clockwork Orange), this is the most interesting and well-assembled.

My rating: 4.5/5
The Wasp Factory on Goodreads
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