Thursday 2 June 2011

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.
I have occasionally thought that I dwell too much on women writers, if I look closely at the TBR pile I don't think there are many men, so in the spirit of adventure, and without even looking at what it is about, I picked out The Wasp Factory on CD. (Having said that I checked back to my two reading roundup lists and find that in fact male writers make up only slightly less than half the books read.)

This book was totally and utterly engaging. It is a first person narrative by nearly seventeen year old Frank, who lives with his father on a small, isolated island by the fictitious town of Porteneil in Scotland. In a quirk of experimentation Frank is a non-person as his father failed to register his birth, and as such he has lived an almost idyllic childhood running wild and waging battles against imaginary enemies and the local wildlife:

"I probably know more about the conventional school subjects than most people of my age. I could complain about the truth of some of the bits of information my father passed on to me, mind you. Ever since I was able to go into Porteneil alone and check things up in the library my father has had to be pretty straight with me, but when I was younger he used to fool me time after time, answering my honest if naive questions with utter rubbish." (p.14)

He has a brother, Eric, who, it transpires, has just escaped from a mental institution, and is making his way home. This is their first phone conversation:

" 'I'm fine. How are you?'
'Mad of course,' he said, quite indignantly. I had to smile.
'Look, I'm assuming you're coming back here. If you are, please don't burn any dogs or anything, OK?'
'What are you talking about? It's me, Eric. I don't burn dogs!' He started to shout. 'I don't burn fucking dogs! What the hell do you think I am? Don't accuse me of burning fucking dogs, you little bastard! Bastard!' " (p.18)

This gives you a hint of where things are going, and the phone calls that punctuate the book get worse and crazier from there. However Eric is not the only person in the book to worry about. Frank is very honest, and we learn early on about the murders. I liked the way that he drops little hints about things and then leaves you dangling on the bait, waiting to tell you the details until it seems to him like the right time. So you have to wait to find out about the deaths, the 'Tale of Old Saul', the Bunker, Frank's 'little accident', the bad experience that turned Eric into a crazy person ... and of course The Wasp Factory. So we follow Frank as he spends his time, eating meals with his dad, getting drunk with Jamie, collecting stuff from the town dump, building bombs in the shed, performing peculiar little rituals and patrolling his territory and reinforcing his defences:

"I stopped to look at the shore. There didn't seem to be anything interesting there, but I remembered the lesson of the day before, when I had stopped to sniff the air and everything seemed fine, then ten minutes later I was wrestling with a kamikaze rabbit, so I trotted down off the side of the dune and down to the line of debris thrown up by the sea." (p.46)

I won't give away too much about the kamikaze rabbit incident, other than to say if you have a slightly moody and unpredictable teenager reading this will make you feel a whole lot better and grateful for normality. What I liked was that Frank doesn't just describe his activities but also his physical sensations, from the pleasures of showering to the extreme exertions of running across the island, and taking pains to explain his own actions and reactions to events. I just loved the relish with which he recounts how much he enjoyed the performance he puts on after the 'disappearance' of Esmerelda:

"Someone stayed in my room all night and, whether it was my father, Diggs, or anybody else, I kept them and me awake all night by lying quiet for a while, feigning sleep, then screaming with all my might and falling out of bed to thrash about on the floor. Each time I was picked up, cuddled and put back to bed. Each time I pretended to go to sleep again and went crazy after a few minutes. If any of them talked to me, I just lay shaking in the bed staring at them, soundless and deaf.
I kept that up until dawn, when the search party returned, Esmerelda-less, then I let myself go to sleep." (p.94)

And then he goes off into a bit of a fantasy of what might have become of her (yes, it does say 'giant kite', it's nearly as surreal as the kamikaze rabbit):

"I would like to think that she died still being floated by the giant kite, that she went round the world and rose higher as she died of starvation and dehydration and so grew less weighty still, to becomes, eventually, a tiny skeleton riding the jetstreams of the planet; a sort of Flying Dutchwoman. But I doubt that such a romantic vision really matches the truth." (p.95)

What I am reminded of most, when reflecting on this book, is 'We have always lived in the castle' by Shirley Jackson (reviewed nearly 2 years ago). In that story it was Merricat who was supposedly protecting her crazy elder sister, who similarly used strange rituals and buried talismans to guard her home, and who was definitely not so sane herself. I loved the sensation that you really did not have any idea what was going to happen next, it is an anarchic and unpredictable story. In spite of the world that Frank has created for himself being so far from reality and that he is so completely outside any accepted moral code, he is totally credible and has a unique voice. I couldn't say that you exactly identify with him but it is so wonderfully written that you understand him and just accept the course of events and his actions as they unfold. I don't want to spoil the disclosure so I will leave the quotes now. At less than 200 pages it could easily and best be read in one sitting. The main narrative takes place over quite a short space of time so there is quite a sense of urgency to the story. Eric's phone calls warn us that he, and the climax of the tale, are getting rapidly closer and you just know that there has got to be some profound revelations alongside the expected conflagration ... you won't be disappointed.

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