The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

This is a pretty dark book, not the worst – that award goes to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho – but still pretty messed up. However while American Psycho remains the most horrid thing I have ever read, I still felt I could understand the purpose. Yes, it is intended to shock but it is also cleverly crafted and has a profound message about contemporary culture. The Wasp Factory on the other hand doesn’t achieve the same sophistication and nuance.

I thought the plot was contrived and, quite frankly, bizarre. The blurb of my copy reads as a quote taken from the novel:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and I don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

After finishing the novel it seems as though Banks came up with this heartless confession, determined to create an character who could act it out, and decided to base his whole plot around it with little consideration for how things were actually going to pan out. There are so many interweaving threads to the storyline, which you are lead to believe are important, only to get to the end and realise how pointless and meaningless they all were. For instance, Frank is the narrator and main character. He is also the killer, so I really think there are quite enough issues to address (in this thankfully short novel) without the complication of Eric, Frank’s older brother who enjoys setting fire to animals and is basically a complete red herring. In my opinion he served zero purpose in the story other than for Banks to introduce yet more depravity and animal torture into the story, which there is already far too much of.

The plot is disorganised and poorly composed. Suspension of disbelief is one thing but this novel requires far more than that. Frank is supposed to be the tender age of six when he commits his first murder and still under ten when he dispatches the other two (also children themselves), yet the acts are narrated by his present self. The discrepancy between this really jars and makes the hideous violence almost farcical – is he really supposed to have had the intellectual capacity to murder three children without detection or even suspicion? And The Wasp Factory itself, which is alluded to mysteriously for the first half of the novel, is utterly ridiculous and certainly not an example of ‘the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination’. It is equally extraneous to the plot as Eric’s character is.

In addition I found the complete inconsistency of the main character, Frank, to be intensely annoying. For a serial killer this may be expected I hear you say, however this wasn’t the characterisation of a killer. He swings wildly from being detached and deranged to empathetic and merciful, which I found very difficult to believe. What was this supposed to prove??

The ending is particularly confusing. Are you supposed to feel sorry for him once you discover the truth about what happened to him? Is Banks trying to say something about gender? Is that the point of all the mindless violence? Frank’s weird confessional-style (“now I find I was the fool all along”) speech in the final pages felt like the equivalent of but-it-was-all-just-a-dream ending favoured by primary school children.

It is not the violence itself that bothers me about this novel, it is the tales of violence in the place of good story-telling. A very disappointing book.

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