Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory
Looking at me, you’d never guess I’d killed three people. It isn’t fair.
I recently re-read this for this first time in years. I still have the paperback copy I bought in 1985, and have read it every five years or so ever since. It still holds up as a genuinely bizarre and original work of fiction, and the fact that it was a debut novel makes it all the more impressive.When it was first published the critical response was utterly polarised, which is always a good sign. Alongside the positive assessments of the novel, there was the likes of The Irish Times, who said: “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” and, my favourite, from The Evening Standard: “A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles horror upon horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile.” Perhaps it helped that I was the same age as the protagonist Frank – sixteen – when I first read it, but Banks perfectly captures the way teenagers construct their own world, complete with their rites and rituals and a deeply personal interpretation of events. Frank is just an extreme example of what we all experience during that stage in life, but because of the fully realised world he inhabits, you cannot help but empathise with him. As insane as he is, everyone around him seems even crazier, which, despite all his faults, forces you as a reader to place your sympathies with him.
Over the years the book has inspired band names and several different stage interpretations, but because of the nature of the subject matter – multiple child murders, animal cruelty – and the deeply internalised perspective of the narrator, it remains un-filmable. I know they used to say that about Naked Lunch, but I think this really is beyond any kind of worthwhile cinematic interpretation, which is fine with me, because not every book needs to be culturally validated with a film interpretation. The book stands on its own. Banks died a few years back, and in my opinion he never quite bettered his first novel, but he was a distinctively awkward figure in the literary scene, ploughing his own idiosyncratic furrow, following the logic of his own imagination. If they’re still teaching Lord Of The Flies and 1984 as part of the O-level curriculum, I see no reason why this shouldn’t be added to that list. Let’s have an entire generation of teenagers forced to enter the very strange world of Frank Cauldhame.
I made this drawing inspired by The Wasp Factory in 1989: