Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory (1984)

Iain Banks is a well-regarded Scottish novelist I'd never read.  He recently announced on his website that, at the age of fifty-nine, he's been diagnosed with advanced gall bladder cancer and is unlikely to have more than a year to live.  This, it's fair to say, sucks a lot, so I decided to pay my respects by finally reading this, his first and (I suppose) best-known novel, which I had been meaning to for a while.

The Wasp Factory is a first-person account by a sixteen-year-old boy, Frank Cauldhame, living with his eccentric father on a small island off the coast of Scotland.  Frank, as it happens, is an unusual lad; he has this idea that he controls/protects the island in some way, which involves killing small animals to use their bodies as "wards" in baroque, shamanistic rituals.  Oh, and also, when he was younger, he murdered three of his relatives, including his brother Paul, in inventive ways ("I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.  It was just a stage I was going through").

In some ways, Frank is clearly a crazy person.  However, he's very rational/lucid about his craziness.  The same cannot be said for his brother Eric, a raving psychopath with a penchant for setting dogs on fire, who, we learn near the novel's beginning, has escaped from a mental institution and is likely heading for the island.  The object lesson of Eric makes Frank seem less unhinged than he might otherwise.

The novel basically consists of Frank detailing his day-to-day routine as he prepares for Eric's presumed arrival, and fills in various aspects of his past.  And let's not beat around the bush: this is a fantastically entertaining novel, in large part because Frank is such a marvelous protagonist.  I don't think any hemming and hawing about whether or how much we should like him given his crimes and his general craziness: he's an extremely sympathetic character, full stop.  It might take a little while to warm to him, but you do, and he's great, with a really indelible narrative voice.  If there is to be a criticism of the novel, it's that the ending is kind of clumsy (forgivable, for a first novel): I am not referring here to the Big Twist, which may seem arbitrary at first but actually fits in with the novel's larger thematic concerns; rather, I'm referring to the way Frank spells out What His Behavior Meant--a bit clunky for sure.

Now…a notable thing is the way that so many people, both fans and detractors, feel the need to harp on The Wasp Factory's alleged unspeakably depravity--as exemplified by this famous notice from the Irish Times:

“It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

Quick scans of amazon and goodreads confirm that this is a majority opinion--to which I can only say, fercrissake, how thin-skinned are you people?  I mean, not that the book isn't disturbing in places, or that that's not part of the appeal, but the actual violence, which is not generally particularly graphic, takes up only a small part of the narrative as a whole.  Talk about missing the forest for the trees.  The most unpleasant thing in the novel is the eventual story of How Eric Got That Way, and that, I would argue, is not the novel's high point; it seemed like Banks was thinking "hmm…what's the grossest thing I can think of, that might plausibly have that effect?" and I'm not at all convinced that it could anyway.  As for the killing of animals (which, no surprise, seems more repellant to most people than the killing of humans): if I, a non-meat-eater, can deal with it, I feel like maybe you should spare the world your moralistic huffing and puffing.  Besides, hitting so hard on the book's disturbing aspects causes us to undervalue the skilled character work.  I don't know that The Wasp Factory is an all-time great, but it's short and it's a lot of fun and I recommend it highly.


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