Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book 31 – The Wasp Factory

By Iain Banks

I remember this vaguely being in my radar back in the 90’s when The Wasp Factory was touted as a top 100 book of the century. But I wasn’t much of a reader back then, as I was busy either studying, making 16mm films or going to raves. When I spotted a cheap copy at my neighborhood thrift shop, I thought it would make a nice addition to my reading list. Of course, not being familiar with Iain Banks at all, I had always thought that The Wasp Factory was science fiction, confusing the fact that Iain Banks only uses Iain M. Banks for his sci fi work. Guess I only have myself to blame for tricking myself into reading a work of literary fiction!

So I had to get used to the fact that the story was not about a strange boy in a futuristic dystopian world, but a strange boy living in a hippy homestead somewhere in rural Scotland sometime in the now. Then I had to get used to the fact that this odd, obese teenager (his name is Frank) had his wee-wee bitten off by a cantankerous dog when he was little and this traumatic event caused him to be a bit of a child serial killer, a phase which he outgrew when he reached his teens. Not only is Frank compulsively obsessed with death, he collects his bodily fluids and uses the dead animals he has killed for fantastic rituals which helps him deal with the fact that his wee-wee is gone and he will never grow to be a man.  Frank lives with his eccentric and distant father, a former hippy now silently tormented by his own demons.  Can’t blame the guy since all his sons have met unfortunate fates: one was killed when very young (secretly by Frank); the eldest went insane and has escaped from the asylum (again); and the remaining somewhat sane one (this be Frank) is an overweight eunuch living off the grid since the dad never bothered registering him at birth.

As you can gather from my overview, TWF is not for everyone.  If I knew I was delving into an entire novel narrated by a chubby child-killin’ castratee, I would certainly have thought twice. One thing I appreciated about this trade paperback copy was that it featured blurbs both good and bad as Bank’s debut made quite a controversial splash in 1984. There were reviews that praised the novel for its “curdling power and originality” as a modern Gothic horror story and critics who condemned it for its “ghoulish frivolity” and “preposterous sadism”.  Here are a couple of my favourites:

"A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics... the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty" (Sunday Express)

"A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles upon piles of horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile" (Evening Standard)

For myself, I didn't love or hate The Wasp Factory, nor was I particularly offended by it, but I also didn’t really enjoy it either. At best, TWF was different from many of the books I’ve read, as it was on the bizarre and macabre side. But these factors made it an interesting reading experience and I don’t regret having read it. One good thing about not knowing anything about The Wasp Factory was that I was completely unaware that there was a twist at the end. If I have ever come across the most unreliable of narrators, Frank Cauldhame takes the cake, and it’s not just because he’s a little bit insane. Banks crafted a story with layers of symbolism and meaning, but has taken care in not being too heavy-handed. When you think about it, the author has created a compelling and clever story that services the rather ambitious theme of gender as construct. The quality of writing is remarkable enough to draw you in, despite the abundance of repellent subject matter (rabbits getting blown to bits, a child plotting the murder of another child, a dog being set on fire, misogynistic rants, etc… yeah, you get the drift). You also feel some empathy for Frank, despite the fact that he is a castrated, fat little freak who has committed some abhorrent acts. This is no small achievement.

Nevertheless, it isn't quite Lord of the Flies either. After I was finished, I really wanted my next book to be something bright and sparkling, to wash away the unpleasantness that was TWF.

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