FRANCIS LESLIE CAULDHAME is not your average child.
Deserted at birth by his mother, sexually mutilated by a mad dog at age three, a murderer at age eight, Frank spends his days patrolling his home -- an island linked by footbridge to a Scottish coastal village -- and performing talismanic rituals that feature the gruesome killing of small animals. Sequestered from school and society, he has been raised by a crippled crank of a father whose principal pastimes include obsessively measuring the household furnishings and dispatching manuscripts to London publishers on subjects ranging from flatulence to the earth as Moebius strip. His older half-brother, Eric, has been remanded to an insane asylum for such delightful pranks as setting dogs afire and forcing maggots and worms into the throats of toddlers. Prompted by Eric's escape from custody, 16-year-old Frank now tells the story of his curious life -- and of the night his brother returns home, forcing the family's secrets into daylight.
The Wasp Factory is a first novel by Iain Banks, a young Scotsman living in London, and it has stirred both controversy and lavish praise in his homeland because of the bluntly visceral tone of its warped teenaged narrator. It replicates, in a mainstream context, that peculiarly British form of horror novel known as the "nasty," which dispenses with more delicate forms of terror in favor of a passion for atrocity; but Banks finesses even the most grotesque of moments with black humor worthy of Evelyn Waugh or Harry Crews: "I'm very fond of my old brass alarm clock," Frank Cauldhame tells us. "Once I tied a wasp to the striking-surface of each of the copper-coloured bells on the top, where the little hammer would hit them in the morning when the alarm went off. I always wake up before the alarm goes, so I got to watch."
Like another of Frank's favorite deathgames, The Wasp Factory has "a nice blend of callousness and irony." Banks' narrator is repellent yet endearing; his sardonic delivery strikes repeated bull's-eyes at the dark side of human nature: "A death is always exciting, always makes you realize how alive you are, how vulnerable but so-far-lucky; but the death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!" Frank has gone more than "a bit crazy," of course -- to the point of premeditated murder of three young relatives -- but his story inevitably brings us into complicity. As Frank himself suggests, his instincts are no different from those we experience (and, fortunately, repress) daily.
There is great power in Banks' descent into the tormented mind of a tormentor; but it is the mysteries surrounding Frank Cauldhame's primitive, animistic lifestyle that propel the reader through The Wasp Factory: the totemic skulls gazing out to sea, the tense undercurrent of sexual antipathy, the locked door of his father's study. And at the heart of darkness, hidden in the attic, is Frank's private shrine, the Wasp Factory itself -- a Rube Goldberg device for the torture and death of wasps whose centerpiece is a clock face that once fronted the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Wasp Factory serves as an oracle, revealing the future through death, but it also offers a singular meaning for Frank's twisted existence.
"All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern . . . The strong make their own patterns and influence other people's, the weak have their courses mapped out for them . . . The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern because it is part of life and -- even more so -- part of death . . . The reason it can answer questions is because every question is a start looking for an end, and the Factory is about the End -- death, no less. Keep your entrails and sticks and dice and books and birds and voices and pendants and all the rest of that crap; I have the Factory, and it's about now and the future; not the past."
As a novel of childhood reversion to primal instincts, The Wasp Factory is not unique -- even its title shares an affinity with the classic text, Lord of the Flies. Banks indulges too often in imagery and insight beyond the years of his young narrator, and the humor of the book seems suddenly discarded in the straight-faced severity of its ironic conclusion, which is certain to delight some readers and to infuriate others. But none of this should suggest that The Wasp Factory is anything less than a compelling and refreshingly bold fiction.
One is tempted to offer the caveat "not for the squeamish" in the tradition of so many motion picture come-ons, but perhaps The Wasp Factory is the very book for the squeamish -- a literate, penetrating examination of the nature of violence and the dwindling value of life in the modern world. Iain Banks has made a remarkable debut; The Wasp Factory is as funny, frightening, shocking, annoying, and despairing as life itself.