Few novels compelled me as much to immediately write my thoughts down as The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Usually I enjoy novels a lot while reading them (or not), but quickly dive into a new one afterwards. In this case, I felt the need to spend some words on it before moving on. I’m pretty sure this means that the book has some sort of clarity and compactness of style that brings across its messages very directly.
I sure wasn’t the only one reading The Wasp Factory this month. Banks passed away after a battle with cancer on June 9th, and a number of my online friends and acquaintances made a grab towards his debut novel, like I did. L. Rhodes (as Notable Reader) has published his reading notes here. There are many things to be said about the novel, but I’d like to highlight only a couple for now, though a bit of a summary will be necessary as well.
The book is written from the perspective of Frank Cauldhame, a seventeen year old who lives in a remote area of Scotland with his father Angus. His brother Eric was in a mental hospital, but he has escaped and spends the greater part of the book trying to make his way back home without getting caught. From the beginning, it is clear that Frank is a rather messed-up young man. He delights in violence and the killing of animals, and quickly reveals that he is responsible for the deaths of three of his family members, including his younger brother Paul. Being hidden away from school by his reclusive father, Frank has free range of the island on which they live, and he spends his day engaging in a variety of self-designed magical rituals, and the gathering of the materials he needs to conduct them. These materials include dead animals or parts of them, as well as bodily fluids and other parts of his own body. Among his many magical contraptions are the powerful Sacrifice Poles, which are spread out across the perimeter of the island as a form of alarm and protection.
I found the depictions of Frank’s personal magic very powerful, and without using too many words, Banks is able to give us a sense of the intensely symbolic universe that Frank has created for himself to live in. He uses methods that are well known through study of magic in the real world, particularly sympathetic magic, and the belief that objects can be become charged with energy by important events. As such, Frank has kept objects related to or involved in important deaths, and uses them in divination rituals. The skull of his dog Old Saul features prominently when Frank tries to contact his brother Eric from afar, and he has kept shrapnel from the bomb that blew up his little brother Paul.
All this elaborate symbolism structures the mind of someone who is in effect little more than a cruel psychopathic murderer. Throughout the book, Frank shows no reverence or even regard for the life of animals and people, perhaps with the exception of his brother Eric and his friend Jamie. In a powerful passage in chapter 7, entitled “Space Invaders”, we can perhaps see the tiniest sliver of consciousness about Frank’s own immorality, but he projects it (justifiably or not) onto mankind as a whole.
In numerous parts of the book, Frank shows a mental perspective that reminded me most of an erratic, cruel god; a Demiurge, if you will. Not only does he whimsically play with the lives of those in his power, he often constructs elaborate imaginary worlds, only to destroy them moments later. Building dams seems to be a particular favourite of his, and he spends a lot of time around the island building villages, bridges, and dams, to eventually blow them up with his homemade bombs and delighting in the destruction of those villages and their imaginary inhabitants. Of course, we (can) do this ourselves when we write novels, play videogames, or just fantasize about it. What makes Frank different is that he treats the whole world as his (fictional) realm, and cares as little about what happens to living beings as imaginary ones. To explain his own erraticness, Frank uses the image of his brain consisting of many different people.
Although, as the Notable Reader argues, The Wasp Factory itself is not a central symbol when it comes to explaining Frank’s personality, it is the most important symbol of what that personality is. The Factory, an elaborate contraption made out of a huge clock face, is where Franks makes a captured wasp pick one out of twelve directions, one out of twelve cruel deaths. The wasp can choose one ‘hour’ and end up eaten by a spider, another and it is impaled on a needle, drowned in urine, or roasted alive in a tin. There is no escape, death is always the end, and Frank is the God overseeing it all, allowing a series of meaningless choices that all end in doom. In other words, Frank’s world is all about control; all the magic, all the cruelty, all the death — these are manifestations of the power that Frank needs to have over the world and its inhabitants.
The question remains: why does Frank want all this power? In the book’s final reveal, it is suggested that this obsession with control may mirror the excessive control that Frank’s father Angus had attempted to exert over him. It turns out that Frank is actually Frances — a girl. In a traumatic event, a very young Frances was attacked and bitten in the groin by their dog Old Saul. Angus used this event to construct a fiction: that Frances was castrated by Old Saul. In reality, from that day on Frances was secretly given male hormones in order to force a transition from a girl to a (castrated) boy.
While the explanation makes sense in some kind of roundabout way, I feel that there are plenty of elements in the novel that give us cause to doubt all this, or at least question its significance. ‘Frankces’ narrates everything in the book, and to me, this final chapter felt most like a rather weak attempt at explanation, if not justification, than anything else. Of course, what Angus had done to Frank is a bizarre experiment in gender manipulation, but it is in no way explained how this would lead to homicidal and sociopathic behaviour.
There is only one situation in which a murder by Frank was clearly motivated: the first one. In another traumatic childhood memory, cousin Blythe incinerated the rabbits kept by Eric and Frank using an aerosol flamethrower that Eric himself had invented. Eventually Frank exacts his revenge on Blythe and kills him using a snake, although he claims Eric was the one more affected by the death of the rabbits: “[h]e was always a bit sentimental”. That this is an outright lie is proven in the same chapter where Frank slaughters a number of rabbits with fire and bombs in the exact same area where he originally killed Blythe. Apparently the event left as big an impression on Frank as it did on Eric.
There are more discrepancies in the story: particularly, there are all sorts of symbolic correspondences in the tale that are symptomatic of Frank’s own view of the world, but not the mark of a reliable narrator: the parallels between the attack of Old Saul and Frank being born under the star of Sirius with the star sign Canis (according to his father). Angus could have made this up to symbolically illustrate Frances’ rebirth as Frank, but it fits perfectly in Frank’s own symbolic mind.
The connections between Frank’s castration trauma brought on by Old Saul and the birth of his brother Paul are also too good to be true. His mysterious wandering mother Agnes arrives home only to give birth to Paul, and while Agnes is giving birth, Saul attacks Frank, apparently because the dog hates women (or Agnes in particular?). The parallels (Frank-Frances, Angus-Agnes, Saul-Paul) are so strong that I start to doubt which ones are to be believed to be real and which ones aren’t.
Then, finally, there’s the murder/death of Blythe caused by a snake hidden in his prosthetic leg which is parallel to another gruesome ‘hidden death’: the one that finally caused Eric to lost his mind: in a gruesome scene it is described how Eric, working in a hospital, is confronted with the gradual death of a baby that was hidden to all casual observers. It is too powerful to paraphrase, so just read it yourself.
All these things are reason enough to doubt significant parts of Frank’s narrative, if not all of it. Is it all just an elaborate yarn to symbolically justify Frank’s violent leanings? I would have to reread the book to elaborate on this, but I think there’s more to be discovered there. In any case, I would welcome other people’s perspectives.
In the end, then, the narrative gives no satisfactory answer to the question why Frank is so obsessed by controlling everything in his world, including his own history. Or perhaps it does, precisely because it doesn’t. Eric went mad because he couldn’t cope with the random cruelty that sometimes manifests in the world. Why did Blythe kill the rabbits, why did the baby have to die in that way? Or for that matter: why do people tend to die when around his brother Frank? Frank himself is cause and instance of such random cruelty: the evil in the world that defies explanation, no matter how hard we try.
[Image source: http://cannonballread4.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/mrs-smith-reads-the-wasp-factory-by-iain-banks-cbr4-review-7/]