on 15 November 2013
A very dark, macabre, insane, unsettling and disturbing book. How do you rate something like this? It certainly can't be described as enjoyable. Then why couldn't I put the damn thing down?! Why did I allow myself to be drawn in to the violence, even as I'm trying to imagine what could possibly drive someone to do such sick things? If I said I thought this book was simply outstanding, what does that say about me? Ah, damn it! enough with the questions. I'm going to rate it 5* and I'll worry about the state of my mental health later!
Iain Banks passed away from cancer in June 2013, aged 59. The Wasp Factory was the Scottish author's first novel and it has become his most famous. A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century. It is also included in the 1,001 book challenge. When it was first released, the book was initially greeted with a mixture of acclaim and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. Banks dealt with the controversy brilliantly however by placing a selection of reviews, good and bad, on the inside cover. The Times Literary Supplement's verdict, "A literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquency", was proudly displayed alongside The Financial Times' "Macabre, bizarre, and impossible to put down". A reviewer for the Irish Times wrote "It is incomprehensible that a publisher could have stooped to such levels of depravity".
The Wasp Factory is written from a first person perspective, told by sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame. Frank is a psychopath. He has a penchant for violence and killing, small animals mostly, but he also killed three younger children before he was ten. As he describes it: "[...] 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." Frank's life is dominated by his strict adherence to personal rituals and totems--the wasp factory, built from an old clock face, being the most significant. To Frank, the wasp factory guides him through life. Frank has one surviving half-brother, Eric, whom we are informed is crazy, after experiencing something very unpleasant while working in a hospital. It is Eric's escape from the asylum that precipitates the action of the novel.
This is a brilliant, caustic, breath-taking novel that will not appeal to all. As is evident by critics, this book has scared the bejesus out of some, sickened others and captured fandom of a great many. With respect to the latter, the Wasp factory recently made its debut at the Bregenz Festival in Austria and will be showing at the Royal Opera House in London in October 2013. Yes, you've read right, it has been transformed into gripping music theatre.
If you have a tolerance for violence and madness, I urge you to read this book. If for nothing else, the twist in its tail is simply fantastic.
on 28 June 2001
Having read some of Banks' SF, and then started reading his fiction as well, I still shied away a little from reading "The Wasp Factory". It says much that the bad reviews as well as the good are included on the sleeve, and while it may sometimes not seem as extreme as you might have been lead to believe that's more through the changes to our society and what is now considered acceptable in a work of fiction.
The story focuses on Frank, a 16 year old living with his father on a small Scottish island, part of possibly the ultimate dysfunctional family - all of whom seem to be to varying degrees insane. As Frank's horrific history is revealed, there's the prospect of an even more horrific future as his brother - lately escaped from a secure hospital - makes his way back for a visit....
Much of what you may have heard about this book is true. There are horrors upon horrors, it goes all out to shock at some points, and is definately not for the squeamish. The fact that it doesn't descend to being yet another trashy horror shocker is entirely due to the quality of the writing and Banks' unique way of hooking his readers so that one simply has to carry on and find out exactly what it is that he has planted the seeds of. There is much (very) dark humour in some of Frank's descriptions of the events he has participated in, and throughout there's the blackly comic undercurrent of Frank's assumption that he is in fact the only sane one in his family - despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Much is said about "the twist" and the brilliance of it, but I found it not nearly as startling as some others seem to have, and in fact it ends in an almost tame way - albeit, as with many a good yarn, with an open-endedness that allows you to think about what may follow.
Not a book for everyone by any means, and maybe not as fulfilling a read as some of his later works (especially Complicity) but nonetheless an absorbing, grotesque, horrifying, captivating novel.
I first read this book about 8 years ago and have since read it several times as the brilliance and originality of it make it a rewarding read. That's not to say it's a happy book because it most certainly isn't. The Wasp Factory is a darkly twisted first person narrative of Frank, a profoundly disturbed teenager whose principle sources of entertainment are torturing animals and bumping off unwanted cousins. And we're not just talking about incinerating ants with a magnifying glass or a bread knife in the back, we are talking DIY flamethrowers, bombs, kites, snake venom and The Wasp Factory - a device of psychopathic genius.
I've never read another book like this and to be honest I'm not sure I want to. Frank's simple yet warped logic is brilliantly explained by the author and gives the reader a new way of seeing the world and seeing connections between seemingly unconnected events that were never obvious before until you've taken a trip in Frank's mind.
Banks isn't renowned for subtlety and that charge could be made here but that would be to miss the subtle way the book builds to a climax as Frank's mentally ill brother makes his way home to an explosive endgame after escaping from the secure hospital where he is detained.
The Wasp Factory is darkly comic, truly horrifying and well-paced, but most of all it's expertly written and you'll just want to read more and more. Well, that is if the battle with the rabbits near the beginning doesn't put you off. I'd say read it if you dare but don't say I didn't warn you.
The Wasp Factory is the story of Frank Cauldhame, a disturbed teenager who lives in a remote part of Scotland. Told from Frank's perspective, it is a dark and gruesome novel. As the story opens, Frank's brother has escaped from prison; Frank's father is detached, and retreats regularly to his study, where he works in secret behind a locked door; and all the while, Frank continues to perform macabre rituals and games with dead animals, centring on the mysterious Wasp Factory itself.
I enjoyed this book, knowing nothing about it in advance beyond the mention of "gothic horror" in the enthusiastic review quoted on the cover. It is not pleasant - at one point I actually felt a bit horrified, a very rare experience for me when reading - but I felt gripped, wanting to know more about the Wasp Factory, what Frank's brother and father were doing, and how Frank had become so disturbed. Having set up so many intriguing questions, Banks does well to offer fascinating and unexpected answers.
It was also a pleasure to read a novel that is relatively short, clear, and well-constructed. Many of the most celebrated novels today seem to be quite weighty and complicated by comparison.
The 25th Anniversary Edition includes a preface by Ian Banks, but at three pages long it is not worth the expense if you already have a copy. In the preface he talks about his early writing years before The Wasp Factory - his debut novel - was accepted for publication. I would have preferred some more insight from Banks into the novel itself.
on 16 August 2013
An amazing debut novel by Iain Banks in 1984, but one, I think, that has gone largely ignored over the years. I only came to it recently, when his death was announced in the media. All these years I have wanted to read his work and now, in these tragic circumstances, I got round to it.
I had forgotten about the themes of the book - even if I had a good insight at the time of its initial publication - and I was quite surprised, at the very least, with its subject matter. I think I expected an out and out horror novel, but it is not that at all. Neither is it a gothic novel, even though it comes with that description in more than one official review. Rather it is a macabre story about the mind of a deranged youth, who has been conditioned that way by his parents and by his environment.
It is a first-person narrative, and all the better for that; also because it fits the devices of the development of the story. The young protagonist guides us through his motives and his mental processes in a way that keeps the reader interested. There is no real plot as such, but, instead, an atmosphere of impending doom pervades the novel. All of this is brought to a shocking conclusion in the final pages, giving way to feelings of genuine sympathy and disgust for the unfortunate protagonist.
A rewarding read that will stand the test of time whichever genre it is best suited.
on 14 April 2010
It is difficult to generically pigeonhole Iain Banks' debut `The Wasp Factory'. Such labels as `horror', `satire' or `bildungsroman' are inadequate and fail to appreciate the full extent of the novel's dark aesthetic. It has even been slapped with the blanket identifier `Edinburgh Gothic'; a wholly naive and facile attempt to describe a disparate collection of Scottish writings. However, the less specific term `modern gothic' falls somewhat close to the mark in describing this violent, gruesome and darkly comic story.
`The Wasp Factory' seems to be a blatant and total attack upon a romanticised artistic vision of Scotland (as might be found, for example, in the work of Walter Scott). The novel's narrator is Frank, a sixteen-year-old serial killer who lives alone with his father on a remote island off the Scottish coast. Perhaps in an attempt to extricate himself from a national cliché, Banks has Frank construct, in miniature, tranquil scenes representing an idealised, peaceful Scotland, and then destroy them with controlled floods and explosions. Frank is king on his island and, without remorse, tortures animals, murders children and engages in quasi-religious, perversely ritualistic activities with the `wasp factory'; a torturous contraption he has constructed to guide him through life.
The novel lacks any traditional `plot' and is difficult to describe without giving something away; suffice to say it's a story of a twisted and perverse boy whose narration is as gruesomely detailed as it is comically evoking. Yet Frank is an imperfect protagonist; he is frequently too self-aware to protect himself with pleas of naivety, and the manner in which he describes his schemes demonstrates a level of contrivance not conducive to the presentation of a confused individual.
Overall this is clearly a first novel; violent and attention-grabbing: it's an exercise in `look what I can do' shock, and is not without its flaws. Frank's final act of self-discovery is symbolically externalised by the very clichéd image of a locked room that, once gained access to, reveals all. The heavy-handed final turn lacks any of the subtlety that Banks has developed later in his career. Worth reading, and morally intriguing, `The Wasp Factory' is a good if imperfect first effort.
on 25 August 1999
My introduction to the wonderful world of Iain Banks came a couple of years ago when someone recommended I read The Wasp Factory - it has stuck in my mind as the most memorable book I have ever read since then. It was recommended by a friend, with much giggling and raising of eyebrows - I assume in anticipation of my shock and horror at its contents. Shocked and horrified at The Wasp Factory? Never! Delighted, amazed and over-awed at such wit and clever writing is more how I would describe my reaction to this perfect piece of literature. I went on to read every other book by Mr Banks I could get my hands on and even though I have enjoyed every one of them, I don't remember any of them with as much fondness as I do The Wasp Factory (the closest I have come is with The Crow Road and Whit). I agree that maybe anyone who has led too sheltered a lifestyle may be a little perturbed by the detailing of Frank's more-than-a-little warped personality, but if you read the book without any previous misgivings (hard to do I know) and try to keep an open mind and your sense of humour, you should be pleasantly surprised. (The exception to this rule may be my Mum (sorry Mum) who gave up halfway through as she just didn't "get it" - but that's Mums for you!).
Give it a go, you really don't know what you're missing.
.... And anyone who reads the back page of a book first should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!
on 24 May 2006
It's a horror story but doesn't rely just on the blood and guts to shock. There's a heavy psychological aspect to this book. What amazed me is that it's Banks' first, and shows the difference between a developing skill and sheer writing ability that makes the rest of us puke with jealousy.
Writing in the first person like we're all told never to do, Banks creates this remote world where the central character, clearly rather unhinged, spends his insular life committing brutalities towards animals. It seems important, and the only thing that isn't met with disdain and suspicion.
His disjointed life in remote Scotland has centred around this and three successful, pointless murders he's acheived.
Banks creats the character excellently and builds their world and their mindset in clear demonstration. Personally I equate deliberate cruelty to animals with perversion, but identified well with Frank despite his actions. Banks makes it a page turner, he brings every expression and event to life, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable tale.
A massive twist at the end, I didn't see it coming, some readers do. The sickness runs right through this book. It seems to me the product of a sick and depraved mind, who also happens to be a genius.
on 31 July 2013
I know Iain Banks is no longer around to defend himself, and I am sure for his many fans he is a loss, but in 20 years of trying I only ever finished one of his books, and I abandoned this one three quarter way through. The prose is at best workaday, the characters poorly developed, the plot unbelievable. Most of IB's works remind me of being back at school when the boys would submit essays full of violant mob scenes and poorly realised space operas - Banks never got beyond that stage.
on 19 November 2002
...This is one of the best debut novels I have come across in some years now. It is obsessive, gory, cruel, repellent and gut churningly unsettling. Yet you will also find examples of brilliant dialogue, dark humour, surrealism, and writing of extraordinary clarity and attention to detail. The only thing this book lacks is purpose - the thought that these ideas were simply floating around the authors mind is a worrying one. This book will no doubt encompass some of your worst nightmares and lay them out clearly for you on the page. I strongly advise people with delicate stomachs and people who are easily offended to avoid perusing the pages of this book. You cannot love this book due to the violence and gore it contains. But you will enjoy it, you will be repulsed in parts, you will want to read more, and you will develop an immediate respect for the author. A courageous smack on the nose for literature as we knew it.