The Wasp Factory is a like a very small dog with a very loud bark. Although I’d heard lots of hype about how it’s evil and shocking and transgressive, it proved to be a small novel about nothing. Sixteen year old Frank lives with his father on an island. He conducts odd shamanistic rituals. He mounts animal heads on poles. He bumps off a few kids in scenes of PG-13 rated gore. Storytelling is crude and uninvolving, characters abuse each other and abuse the reader, and the twist at the end is not as interesting as it thinks it is.
There’s a good deal of violence, mostly against animals. Frank’s brother likes hurting dogs, and Frank himself enjoys setting rabbits on fire. The book contains enough cruelty against rabbits to make El-ahrairah cry. I think Iain Banks was going for “dark antihero” here but Frank just comes across as juvie justice system fodder, totally dislikeable and unsympathetic. A short story about this character would have been interesting. A novel’s length with Frank felt like going on a long car ride with a person who needs a bath.
The title refers to a strange device Frank has constructed from a clockface. He releases wasps from a glass jar into a series of tubes, each leading to one of twelve deaths (four o’clock leads to a spider, 12 o’clock leads to fire, etc). A cool idea, but ultimately the book isn’t about the Wasp Factory. What it is about is an open question. Lots of themes and ideas are introduced but none of them seem terribly material to the overall story.
I liked Frank’s brother, who makes Frank look like a model citizen. The brother is returning from an insane asylum, and he threatens to disrupt Frank’s well-ordered system of rituals. He also stars in the book’s most chilling and disturbing scene (the one in the hospital), but eventually even he fades out of the story, as Iain Banks clears the stage to make his big point about…something beyond me.
Banks once said that The Wasp Factory is a meditation on childhood innocence. In other words, you’re not supposed to do anything except read it and connect Frank’s experiences with your own childhood atavisms. But Frank is an impossible character to identify with, he performs one improbable action after another like a puppet jerked around by an over-enthusiastic puppeteer. Nevermind relate to him, I couldn’t even view Frank as a person that might exist.
At its best moments, The Wasp Factory has a misanthropic “who gives a fuck” attitude that I enjoyed. Mostly it seems directionless, as if it isn’t sure what the point is but just ploughs on regardless. It exists in its own Wasp Factory, with all twelve exits being “wastes the reader’s time.”