The Wasp Factory
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Written from the first person perspective, it is a narrative told by sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame, describing his childhood and all that remains of it. Frank observes many religious rituals of his own invention. As the novel develops, his brother's escape from a mental hospital and impending return lead on to a violent ending and a twist that undermines all that Frank believed about himself.
The 'Wasp Factory' of the title is a clock face salvaged from the local dump. Behind each numeral is a trap, which leads to a different ritual death (for example burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank's urine) for the wasp that Frank puts into the hole at the centre. He uses the death 'chosen' by the wasp to divine the future.
There are also the Sacrifice Poles, upon which hang the bodies and heads of larger animals Frank has killed, and other sacred items. They define and 'protect' the borders of his territory.
Frank occupies himself using his religion and an array of weapons (from his catapult, to home-made flame throwers and pipe bombs) to control the island. He goes for long walks, and occasionally gets drunk with his dwarf friend in the local pub. Other than that, he and his father have almost no contact with the outside world.
After a long buildup, which comes to define the book, we meet Frank's psychopathic brother, Eric, and discover what happened to him to drive him insane. He is described all the way through as a darker and nastier version of Frank, and the reader is not disappointed.
Literary significance & criticism
It also deals with Banks' sceptical attitudes towards organised religion. Frank is obsessive about ritual and the form of things; the Wasp Factory and the Sacrifice Poles are talismanically protective, and divinatory in intent.
The novel is also about power and its abuse. Frank's father's deception of his son (one of Banks' central themes, which appears again in The Crow Road), and the propensity of people to self-deception, are accentuated in the final chapters of the book when new facts force the reader to re-assess completely the opinions formed about the narrator.
The father is the least developed character, remaining as a cypher to the reader, seen through the eyes of his son. He thus appears a shifty and evasive man.
As a first novel by an unknown author, The Wasp Factory was greeted with a mixture of acclaim (The Independent later listed it as one of its top 100 books of the 20th century) and controversy, due to its gruesome depiction of violence. While this is mostly against animals, Frank also recollects killing three younger children when a child himself. The murders are described in a frank and matter-of-fact way, often with grotesque humour; what may be more disturbing than the details of the violence itself is the depth and intensity with which Frank is portrayed.