I love books, and some affect me more than others. This particular novel was a revelation: not a whole lot happens, but I was compelled to keep reading. It inspired me to get rolling on two new fiction projects that I’ve been struggling with. Banks’ debut novel uses the pacing and drama of an action-thriller to explore one core character’s obsessive, macabre internal world.
Within pages of meeting Frank, the protagonist, we learn he is a delusional teenager, an animal abuser, and a murderer.
I wish I had the props this book deserves: a catapult, an oversized kite, a few teeth pulled out of a decrepit dog skull, and maybe some genitals floating in a jar. Wasps would be great, or a huge brass clockface. But for now, these are the things I found that hum on the Wasp Factory frequency.
Frank comes off as sadistic at first, but as we delve into his world, it becomes clear that hurting animals is a ritualistic way of exerting power and control over his surroundings instead of an uncontrollable impulse. The drama plays out again through his habit of building dams among the streams of the island, which he bursts and lets flood the tiny towns made out of sand, sea shells that represent people drowning under the force of the water.
Four traumas form the high points of this book for me: four deaths, all flashbacks and re-tellings, that underpin Frank’s dark view of the world. I keep coming back to the word ‘grim’ when trying to describe The Wasp Factory. Set on a tiny Scottish island, the world is drained of colour and potential.
The impending return of Frank’s brother Eric (escaped from a mental institution) is punctuated by rumours and maddening phone conversations. Eric was the terror of the village, and his random aggression and visceral delight in sadism serves as a foil to Frank’s own methodical, ritualised madness. But I still wonder: did Eric have his own internal Wasp Factory guiding his actions? Will Frank ever realise how removed his view of the world is from reality? The ending doesn’t even hint at an awakening, but rather a degradation of Frank’s mental state.