I first read The Wasp Factory when I was 18. I’d never heard of Banks; but in 1992 he visited a local bookshop to promote his novel The Crow Road. The write-up in the local paper included something about Banks’ popularity with students, which pricked my curiosity. After a year out, I was moving to Liverpool to start university. Hmmmm, my 18 year old self pondered: this sounds like just the sort of fellow I should be reading to impress my fellow Freshers!
The Crow Road was out in hardback, and therefore ridiculously expensive; but W.H. Smith’s did have the intriguingly titled The Wasp Factory (which remains one of my favourite book titles: just on the right side of baffling, whilst opaque enough to intrigue). I bought it, took it home, devoured it in less than 24 hours, and have been a Banks devotee ever since.
The Wasp Factory is the story of 16-year old Frank Cauldhame, a young man who lives with his father on an island off the coast of Scotland. Young Frank’s interests include bomb-making, animal cruelty, and murder. The further you descend into the book, the more you realise just how unusual Frank is, and how completely unaware he is of those differences. Every instance of Frank describing himself as sane (in comparison to his ‘mad’ brother Eric, recently escaped from a secure hospital and slowly making his way home) is just dripping with dramatic irony.
Re-reading The Wasp Factory, I was expecting it to stand up but was impressed with how immersive a book it still is. As with all Banks’ novels it is beautifully written, and shot through with a pitch-black humour that stops the novel’s darker moments from becoming too oppressive. Frank’s father’s eccentricities extend to regularly testing his son on the measurements of everything in their house, from table heights to the length of the telephone flex (‘Loose or stretched?’ I said quickly. He grunted, apparently satisfied if not pleased.). He also seems mysteriously able to divine what Frank was drinking the previous evening in the local pub based purely on the smell of his farts.
The description of the eponymous Wasp Factory is one of the book’s highlights; second time around, even though I knew what was coming it still gripped me. The Factory is central to Frank’s existence; it also allows him to reflect on his experiences, in one of the book’s more affecting passages:
‘Each of us, in our own personal Factory, may believe… that our fate is sealed and certain (dream or nightmare, humdrum or bizarre, good or bad), but a word, a glance, a slip – anything can change that, alter it entirely, and our marble hall becomes a gutter, or our rat-maze a golden path. ‘
This also made me reflect on how my response to the novel has changed over the intervening 25 years. Since I last read The Wasp Factory I’ve lived abroad, gone to university, got married, had two children, moved house several times and undertaken a significant change in career. All this weight of experience perhaps explains why I found the book more shocking this time around. Frank is responsible for the murders of three children; reading these parts of the books again I was more affected by them, where initially to my 18 year old eyes they had just the bright ridiculousness of a cartoon.
Now, with two daughters of my own, I found myself pondering darker, more uncomfortable questions. How would the murdered children’s parents feel? What would happen to their lives in the wake of these deaths? How could Frank live with the guilt of what he had done? There’s no doubt that these scenes affected me much more deeply than I remember them doing before. Perhaps paradoxically, they also made me empathise more with Frank as well, my age helping me to understand him in new and unexpected ways.
One edition of The Wasp Factory – perhaps produced to celebrate the anniversary of its publication – had extracts from original newspaper and magazine reviews of the book printed in the front. Nothing unusual in that – except in this case, the reviews alternated between those which praised the book, and those which thought it was filth of the highest order, and should be banned. I remember first reading these negative reviews, and laughing: how could anyone be so short-sighted, and take the book so seriously?
But now, without the certainty of youth, I’m less sure. I feel myself having more sympathy with the critics, perhaps because I understand better where their criticisms were coming from. I’m not in favour of banning books, and The Wasp Factory remains a singular and impressive piece of work that deserves to be read by all ages. But there’s no doubt that older readers, tied more firmly into the world and with more at stake in it, will read the book differently to a dozy 18 year old whose only stone-cold responsibility is to make it to the pub before his friends leave without him. The way in which a book can affect different readers so markedly is surely also the sign of an enduring piece of literature. I’ve little doubt that, were I to read The Wasp Factory again in 25 years time, I would find something equally new within its singular and arresting pages.