The Wasp Factory - 2015 Reading Challenge
A popular author's first book I don't think a book has ever chilled me to the bone quite like Iain Banks' debut novel, The Wasp Factory.
Banks tried for several years to be a science fiction writer, and failed. Anyone who writes can tell you that there's an awful lot of rejection involved, and there are many famous examples of people whose manuscripts were rejected many times before going on to become million-copy sellers (Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.)
Banks, however, didn't sell one of his old science fiction manuscripts. He instead tried his hand at a new kind of fiction and struck gold.
The Wasp Factory is many things. It is crossover; it is horror; it is suspense; and it does all of these things with many of the tropes used in science fiction. The main character, 16-year-old Frank, lives on a remote island in Scotland with his father. Throughout the story, this island acts as a sort of planet--a place that Frank knows every inch of and commands like a ruthless king.
We find out about Frank slowly, as we found out about everything else in this novel. He is disfigured in some way between his legs. He is best friends with a red-headed dwarf whom he carries on his shoulders and gets drunk with on weekends. He has many strange and grotesque rituals on the island to protect himself and his father, which include putting the heads of animals on Sacrifice Poles and collecting various bodily fluids in jars for mysterious ceremonies.
There is a common saying among writers that you should never have your character look in a mirror in order to tell the reader what he or she looks like. Of course, we all know rules are made to be broken, and Banks breaks that rule in the most wonderful, gripping way.
I looked at myself in the mirror on the dressing-table over on the other side of the room...I'm too fat. It isn't that bad, and it isn't my fault--but, all the same, I don't look the way I'd like to look. Chubby, that's me. Strong and fit, but still too plump. I want to look dark and menacing; the way I ought to look, the way I should look, the way I might have looked if I hadn't had my little accident. Looking at me, you'd never guess I'd killed three people. It isn't fair.
The Wasp Factory is chock full of secrets, and Banks releases them a drop at a time, sprinkled throughout the novel with expert discernment. But this, on page 19, is one of the most important of all and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Frank Cauldhame is a murderer.
That is horrible enough as it is, but not so terribly surprising when you follow him as he torches innocent animals alive and collects wasps to send through some mysterious Factory he's set up in his attic.
However, when the reader discovers whom he murdered, and how old he was when he did so, that's when the book becomes something entirely different from anything else out there.
You as the reader are trapped in the mind of a teenage murderer throughout the entirety of the book, seeing it through his eyes in first-person perspective. Experiencing the discomfort in his body from his childhood accident, hearing of the bizarre ways in which several of his uncles offed themselves, recalling the day when his mother left their family for good or when his older brother went insane after an 'unpleasant experience' as a medical student.
You start to understand him and the way his mind works, and that becomes the most frightening thing of all.
I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.
This book will turn your stomach for many reasons. It will probe around for your nausea trigger until it finds it, and then it will jab that trigger many times over. In its brief 245 pages, The Wasp Factory will challenge everything you believe about childhood innocence and unfortunate accidents. And it will keep you waiting until the very last chapter for all of its many secrets to be revealed.
Banks' seminal first novel is not for everybody. But if you're looking for a book with tight sentences, unique characters, and shocking revelations--it's probably for you.