Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory cover

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

I recently panned I, Lucifer with the explanation that I can enjoy stories about bad people, but I don’t have to, and since then it seems that my statement has been really put to the test. The Orphan Master’s Son centered on awful things happening to hopeless people, and now I read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. This is told from the point of view of a methodical, mass-murdering teen, and it really doesn’t pull any punches.

It wouldn’t be right to call narrator Frank Cauldhame disturbed. His life may be dominated by rituals, both practical ones like patrolling the land around his home and mystical ones meant to predict the future or grant him power, but he is rational and relatable most of the time. That’s almost the most disturbing aspect of the book: As awful as his actions are, Frank seems relatable, and can even be realistic about whether his rituals mean anything. He’s simply someone who acts on the thoughts that everyone has, but he understands that and is comfortable with it. His home and family are plausible, and add to the overall impression of real people disconnected from sane society.

This is never the kind of realism that made me worry someone like Frank could be living next door, but he definitely felt like the sort of person who could be out there somewhere. And that adds to the most disturbing part: The child relatives he murdered. Told in the same precise, clear-headed style as the rest of the book (yes, he has emotional outbursts, but justifies them with a pseudo-rational approach), he builds up to the deaths slowly and horribly. He takes advantage of their trusting nature, and murders for ritualistic reasons that the victims are not responsible for. Suffice to say that I wish I’d read this book before becoming a parent, because it’s very hard to read afterwards.

So this is powerful and well-written, unlike I, Lucifer, but is it good? That’s a trickier question. The Wasp Factory is a fascinating character study, and it’s mercifully short. It’s interesting, but rarely enjoyable. Even if you’re looking for a visceral thrill, it’s too dry and horrifying to provide that. The book’s main problem, though, is that it doesn’t sustain itself even through its short length. The worst of Frank’s actions have been described long before the book is over, and then he just spends his time acting like any other drunken, self-destructive teen trying to one-up Holden Caulfield. It coasts on the strength of the first half and the promise of a big conclusion. But that ending is based on a twist that feels half-successful. It recontextualizes the book, and does make the character study more interesting, but it isn’t foreshadowed well and it derails the plot, leaving the book no way to end.

The Wasp Factory is memorable, compelling, and often directionless. Its impact on the reader is a testament to Banks’ writing skill, but it still doesn’t feel like it had a point at the end. It will be a great book for some people, but certainly not everyone.

Grade: C+

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