Wasp factory

Wasp factory / Ian M. Banks

Banks is an author I see recommended all the time but never got around to reading. Part of it is the issue that crops up when an author writes a lot of books in a shared universe – it’s hard to know when to start, especially when the books aren’t clearly labelled. I ended up picking up Wasp factory not as a way of getting into Banks but because I read some comments on the book by Philip Sandifer that caught my attention.

Brief plot summary

Frank is a 16 year old living on an isolated Scottish island with their father. Openly misogynistic, Frank spends most of their time building weapons, staging massive “wars” on the island, and killing small animals, using their bodies to create shamanistic totems in order to protect the island. Frank killed three people before they were ten years old, but that was “just a phase I was going through”.

Frank’s older brother, possibly even more disturbed than Frank, has just escaped from a mental institution, and he’s eager to come see his family again …

So how is it?

It’s a good, fast read. It’s fairly short but thematically dense.

Consider the plot summary above, though. I wouldn’t describe Wasp factory as “dark” (although I will cop to “disturbing” being a likely attribute) but it is totally amoral. Frank’s narration is completely matter-of-fact, from the three murders to the casual animal cruelty. Frank’s father is equally amoral and seems to spend all of his time planning and executing elaborate pranks so occult no-one else even realizes that a prank has occurred. The only character who shows any moral understanding is Frank’s older brother.

While the end of the book does feature an “explanation” of sorts as to what has been going on, there’s no exploration of the morality of their actions. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but there’s also very little actual resolution. This is one of the stronger aspects of the book, as it avoids the pitfalls associated with abrupt or vague endings. The ending is still satisfying while also leaving things ambiguous.

“The Big Reveal” was not surprising to me. This is probably partially a generational thing and partially a cultural thing. It will probably be pretty shocking for people who haven’t had certain types of experiences.

Wasp factory’s biggest weakness is its final chapter and really dates the book. The ending features an excessively Freudian explanation that didn’t really work for me. I rationalized it to myself that as Frank is the narrator it’s merely a reflection of their knowledge etc. and shouldn’t be taken as the “true” explanation, but it still bothered me. I have the same issue with Gateway, although in Gateway’s case because it’s presented in the context of far-future mental health care it’s much harder to rationalize. I’ve known others who interpret the ending very differently – and in retrospect they’re probably more accurate than I am. My initial reaction was “this psychological musing seems outdated” which was what I was running on when I initially wrote this down.

Wasp factory is a definite predecessor to Palahniuk and Ennis. I’d be absolutely shocked if Ennis wasn’t influenced by it. It’s a novel that very much fits into the traditions of transgressive fiction and some of the elements are highly reminiscent of the “Highland Laddie” arc of The Boys. Banks combines a light dose of body horror with Maldoror’s amoral viciousness. It’s a good experience for those with the stomach for it.

I suppose it should be mentioned, but Frank has also developed an internally consistent magickal system. It’s not clear if it is effective or not, and as Frank is the only narrator it’s left ambiguous (depending on your view of such systems – a convincing argument could be made either way). Regardless, readers who scoff at “fantasy” novels won’t be put off by its presence and because of the way it is integrated into the plot such readers will instinctively view it as another part of Frank’s mental instability.

Recommendation

Wasp factory is a book I have and do recommend, but it’s not one I’d recommend without careful consideration. It’s unapologetically transgressive and the content will be distasteful to many and offensive to some. I’d perform an “author test” before recommending this, unless the person has explicitly asked for something transgressive.

What the author test boils down to is sending out “feelers” by asking about other authors that serve as a means of determining how well the patron will react to the transgressive content of Wasp factory without having to ask them about it directly.

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