The Wasp Factory
|16 February 1984|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Wasp Factory is the first novel by British writer Iain Banks, published in 1984. Before the publication of the The Wasp Factory Banks had written several science fiction novels, which had not been accepted for publication. Banks decided to try a more mainstream novel in the hopes that it would be more readily accepted, and wrote about a teenager with severe violence issues living on a remote Scottish island. According to Banks, this allowed him to treat the story as something resembling science fiction – the island could be envisaged as a planet, and Frank, the protagonist, almost as an alien. Following the publication and success of The Wasp Factory, Banks began to write full-time. Banks would go on to write several more novels before his death in 2013, including several acclaimed science fiction novels that formed the culture series.
The Wasp Factory is written from a first person perspective, told by seventeen-year-old Frank Cauldhame, describing his childhood and all that remains of it. Frank observes many shamanistic rituals of his own invention, and it is soon revealed that Frank was the perpetrator of three deaths of children within his family before he reached the age of ten himself. As the novel develops, his brother's escape from a mental hospital and impending return lead on to a violent ending and a twist that undermines all that Frank believed about himself.
The book sold well, but was greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity."
The 'Wasp Factory' of the title is a huge clock face encased in a glass box and salvaged from the local dump. Behind each of the 12 numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (for example burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank's urine) for the wasp that Frank puts into the hole at the centre within tubes. Frank believes the death 'chosen' by the wasp predicts something about the future.
There are also Sacrifice Poles, upon which hang the bodies and heads of animals, such as mice, that Frank has killed. The purpose of the dead rodents being to attract birds, such as seagulls, which will fly away and alert Frank should anyone come near the island's border. They define and 'protect' the borders of Frank's territory - the island upon which he lives with his father.
Frank occupies himself with his rituals and maintaining an array of weapons (from his catapult, to pipe bombs and a crude flame thrower) to control the island. Frank is haunted by a dog attack which resulted in the loss of his genitalia, and resents others for his impotence, particularly women. He goes for long walks and runs patrolling the island, and occasionally gets drunk with his dwarf friend Jamie in the local pub. Other than that, Frank has almost no contact with the outside world and admits that he is afraid of it due to what it did to his brother, Eric.
Frank's older brother Eric is in an insane asylum after being arrested for setting fire to the town's dogs and terrorizing local children with maggots and worms. He escapes at the start of the novel and throughout the book rings Frank from phone boxes to inform Frank of his progress back to the island. Their conversations invariably end badly, with Eric exploding in fits of rage. Frank is confused as to whether or not he is looking forward to seeing Eric, but it is clear Frank loves his brother dearly.
Frank remembers his older brother as being extremely sensitive before "the incident" that drove him mad: a tragic case of neglect in a hospital where Eric was a volunteer. While attempting to feed a smiling brain-damaged child with acalvaria, Eric realizes that the patient is unresponsive and only smiling off into space. He checks the usually-alert patient's head dressings to find the child's exposed brain tissue infested with day-old maggots.
At the end of the novel, Eric's imminent return precipitates a series of events that result in Frank discovering male hormone drugs in his father's study. After confronting his father, Frank finds out that he was born female and that when he thought he was castrated by a dog mauling at an early age, Frank's father had simply pumped him full of male hormones to see if he would transition from female to male. The father said it was simply "an experiment" and there are hints it was in order to distance himself from the women he felt had ruined his life.
Literary significance and criticism
The book was initially greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. While this is mostly against animals, Frank also recollects killing three younger children when a child himself. The murders are described in an honest and matter-of-fact way, often with grotesque humour. The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity."
The novel works largely as a Bildungsroman as it deals with Frank's ability to deal with events going on around him as he has grown up. In terms of genre it fits into the Gothic Literature due to its exploration of death, mortality and arguably presentations of the monstrous. It also deals with Banks' sceptical attitudes towards organised religion. Frank is obsessive about ritual and the form of things; the Wasp Factory and the Sacrifice Poles are protective talismans, and divinatory in intent.
A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers of The Independent listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century.
- Banks, Iain (1998-07-12). "Out of this world". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 January 2015.
- No Sartre, no Lessing, no Mailer: Frodo the hobbit beats them all - The Independent
- Iain Banks discusses The Wasp Factory on the BBC World Book Club
- Iain Banks discusses The Wasp Factory at the Guardian Book Club
- Iain Banks writing about the creation of The Wasp Factory for the Guardian