Last week, the British writer Iain Banks died following a battle with inoperable gall bladder cancer. Banks, who announced his diagnosis via his website in April, was famed for his work in both science and popular fiction.
I was first introduced to Banks whilst working at Waterstones, when I was recommended The Wasp Factory by a colleague. Narrated by the sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame, the novel centres around Frank’s life in a remote village on the north-east coast of Scotland. With no birth certificate or National Insurance number, Frank’s past is shrouded by mystery. Isolated and alone, he seeks solace in bizarre rituals, constructing violent means of torturing and killing animals.
At the centre of Frank’s world is the wasp factory, a salvaged clock used as a device to capture and kill wasps. Behind each of the numerals lies a different fate, determined by the wasp’s path once it has entered the clock face. With each death, Frank believes he is able to predict an event from the future.
Similarly, in an abandoned bunker Frank creates an alter that has as its centrepiece the skull of ‘Old Saul’, the dog that supposedly tore off his genitalia as a child. Decorated with candles and photographs of relatives, the alter pays homage to Frank’s violent nature and forges a connection between his sadistic rituals and the mysteries of his past. It is not until Frank begins to prepare for the return of his older brother Eric, however, that he is led to a discovery that reveals the mysteries of his past and drastically alters his perceptions of the future.
Although a grotesque and somewhat disturbing read, The Wasp Factory remains one of the most memorable novels on my bookshelf. Beneath Banks’s violent, Gothic novel is an underlying concern for religion, gender and social power. As an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a renowned humanist, Banks often spoke out against religion, which he considered to be “bollocks” and “basically bananas”. Frank’s obsession with his prophecies and sadistic rituals seems incomprehensible, irrational and unjustifiable to any reader and yet, it is the absence of morality, reason and justification that allows Banks to compare religion to the lunacy of Frank’s sacrificial rituals.
Similarly, it is in the novel’s final twist that sees The Wasp Factory as having pro-feminist sympathies. Insisting on the inferior nature of the female sex, both Frank and his father are chauvinistic misogynists, considering women as ‘weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them.’ It is in the novel’s final chapter, however, that Frank’s perceptions of women are met with an ironic twist.
When The Wasp Factory was re-published in 2009 for it’s 25th anniversary, Banks wrote that the novel was supposed to be “a pro-feminist, anti-military work, satirizing religion and commenting on the way we’re shaped by our surroundings and upbringings and usual skewed information we’re presented with by those in power”. Banks’s intentions are met with dark humour, allowing for an easy but unforgettable read.