Jayzus Christ on a Moped, what a deeply disturbing book The Wasp Factory is. Sorry, but that was my initial reaction. And that is the best, most illuminating description I can give it. The story is a puzzle buried in all too vivid images that will give you nightmares and have you speculating whether the person standing beside you is a potential killer.
The Wasp Factory was Iain Bank’s first book, published in the ’80s, and is told in first person by the sixteen-year-old protagonist, Frank Cauldhame. I don’t do book synopses in my reviews because I don’t like to give away the story. What I can say is that Frank, to say the least, is not a particularly sympathetic character. Intriguing, yes. Compelling, yes. But likeable, understandable, absolutely not.
Surely controversial at its publishing and now, I can see why this book launched Bank’s career. I wanted to put it down. But I couldn’t. Every time I picked it up, I cringed at the idea of reading another page, but I kept reading, trying to uncover the clues to the enigma that is Frank Cauldhame. It made me squeamish, with it’s unashamed descriptions of animal abuse and more veiled descriptions of child abuse, and it made me wonder what kind of world could create such a person, which I suppose is what Bank’s was trying to achieve.
It also made me reflect on my own state of mind, on how I have become immune to human suffering, how I can breeze through detective and thriller novels that depict humans, adult humans, being abused, even tortured, in the most horrible ways and not be the least bit disturbed. And yet, let a protagonist, and hence an author, hurt a dog or rabbit– or sheep, for that matter –I become sick at heart, and I usually put the book down to never be picked up again. Because I can not imagine the cruelty, don’t want to imagine the cruelty of a human who can hurt animals and children. People who abuse animals and children are beneath contempt. No matter how mentally defective they are, how abused they themselves have been, I can find no sympathy for someone like that, and I personally hope there’s a special hell for those people.
So I wondered why an adult being abused does not affect me, at least not as drastically. Why I can read a grizzly detective novel and not flinch. The only reason I can come up with is that humans, most especially adult humans, are the primary source of cruelty in this world. I have lost all faith in human kind and see the abuse one gives another as a sad commonality in our world, whether by greed, stupidity, or mental defect. What I abhor is the abuse of something, someone who can’t defend itself.
Why did I keep reading? I don’t know. Frank’s actions and Bank’s descriptions disgusted me. And yet the writing compelled me to try to understand Frank. And I applaud Bank’s for not trying to make Frank a sympathetic character. It would have cheapened the story.
I certainly won’t read The Wasp Factory again. And I will think long and hard about reading any more of Iain Bank’s books. But I will give it 4-stars because it is a work of art. However horrible a picture it portrays, it is a work of art all too vividly portraying the human condition.