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No Control: on The Wasp Factory

The Sac­ri­fice Poles [Artist Unknown]

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://​can​non​ballread4​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​2​/​0​3​/​2​1​/​m​r​s​-​s​m​i​t​h​-​r​e​a​d​s​-​t​h​e​-​w​a​s​p​-​f​a​c​t​o​r​y​-​b​y​-​i​a​i​n​-​b​a​n​k​s​-​c​b​r​4​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​-7/]