Thursday, August 1, 2013

THE WASP FACTORY: An Appreciative Review

The late, great Iain (M.) Banks's passing inspired a number of group reads of his books in different Internetty places. I joined one for THE WASP FACTORY over on LibraryThing. A lot of people had ewww-ick responses; my response is here.

This is one great, as in LOLITA-type great, book. It will long, long outlive most (maybe even all) other books published in 1984.



Simon & Schuster
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Frank--no ordinary sixteen-year-old--lives with his father outside a remote Scottish village. Their life is, to say the least, unconventional. Frank's mother abandoned them years ago: his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital; & his father measures out his eccentricities on an imperial scale. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals there is some solace. But when news comes of Eric's escape from the hospital Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother's inevitable return--an event that explodes the mysteries of the past & changes Frank utterly.

My Review: Much has been said in disgust and even anger about this polarizing book. Some have called for it to be banned. Others have written the equivalent of a silent finger-down-the-throat mime.

You are all entitled to your opinion. Here is mine: This book is brilliant. It will be remembered long long after the pleasant entertainments of the day are more forgotten than Restoration drama. (Hands up anyone who knows who Colley Cibber is. And don't front. Or use Wikipedia.)

I'm also an ardent partisan of Lolita, that deeply disturbing and very beautiful book by a pedophile about his pursuit of the perfect lover. I loved Mrs. Dalloway, the chilling, near-perfect narrative of a wealthy woman's desperation and crushing ennui.

So here's the deal: Frank, and his brother Eric, aren't role models, aren't people you'd want to be around, aren't amusing compadres for a jaunt along the path to the Banal Canal. They are, like Hum and Lo and Clarissa and Septimus, avatars (in the pre-Internet sense) of the raw, bleeding, agonic (unangled, in this use) purposelessness of life. They are the proof that salvation is a cruel ruse. These characters rip your fears from the base of your brain and move them, puppetlike, eerily masterful withal, into your worst nightmares.

And all without resorting to the supernatural.

Humanity comes off badly in this book. The truth of what made Frank the person he is will leave you more chilled than any silly evocation of a devil in a religious text. Frank's very being is an ambulatory evil act. But the reason for it, the motivating factor, is the absolute worst horror this book contains. All the animal-torture stuff is unpleasant, I agree. It's not as though it's lovingly and lingeringly described. And it pales in comparison to Frank's raison d'etre.

So yes, this book is strong meat. It's got deeply twisted characters enacting their damage before us, the safely removed audience. It's making a serious point about human nature. And it's doing all of that in quite beautifully wrought prose, without so much as one wasted word.

But it's essentially a warning to the reader: Don't go there. Don't do the pale, weak-kneed versions of the rage-and-hate fueled horrors inflicted on Frank, and even on Eric. Pay attention, be mindful of the many ways we as lazy moral actors condone the creation of Erics and Franks in our world.

Pay attention.

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