24 June 2013
I remember the voice of Frank from the first time I read this years ago, master of his claustrophobic little world on the bleak island not quite fully detached from the Scottish coast. I remember the totems and rituals he takes as seriously as though he is chief of a tribe of more than one. And I remember him as the archetype of the ‘wanton boys’ that Gloucester compares the gods to in King Lear, the ones who kill us for their sport. His violence towards insects and small mammals is routine, and he tells us about the three murders he committed when he was younger. He wants it to be clear that he doesn’t intend to kill anybody else, because he was just going through a stage.
That idea sums up two more of the memorable things about this novel: the ink-black humour and his unreliability as a narrator. Should we believe any of it? Frank doesn’t call his own reliability into question, obviously, but he does tell us how his own father – the one who shares the island’s only house with him – often made things up as he educated him at home. You would expect that an adult, 45 years old as near as Frank can gauge it, would offer some guidance. But… no. Frank can do what he wants, and his father is as lost in his own world as Frank is. He’s a trained doctor, but writes papers on the shape of the earth – a Mobius strip, if you were wondering – and what can be learnt about people’s mental and emotional states from their farts. Is he serious? Is Frank? Is Iain Banks? Who knows?
I’m pretty sure that Frank is. As for Iain Banks… I’ll think about it. Like the most iconic island in 20th Century British fiction, the one in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, this one can be seen as a microcosm. Like Golding’s schoolboys, Frank has Sacrifice Poles – significant objects and places are always given initial capitals in this world – because there seem to be powers that need to be appeased. Also like them, he wages wars, although he knows they aren’t real. (He doesn’t start one in Chapter 2 because he thinks he might be interrupted by what he refers to as real events. Tell you later.) And the disasters he stages are like those in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes – except that Frank is nearly ten years older than Calvin, locked into the imaginative world of childhood. But without imaginary friends.
If all this sounds weird, it’s nothing compared to Frank’s life as Banks describes it. He is old enough to have developed an entire personal mythology, and a working theology based on sacrificial rituals and his own vigilance. There’s an oracle, in the form of the Wasp Factory that gives him gnomic signs that he is still learning how to interpret. We don’t know what the Wasp Factory is yet, only that it is in the house loft, out of reach of his disabled father. But then, his father’s private study is out of reach to Frank, although he obsessively tries the door on the rare occasions when he is alone in the house. What can be better in a tale like this than a secret chamber? Two secret chambers. Or, now I think of it, three. The other is the Bunker, a padlocked WW2 gun emplacement, populated inside with the skulls of animals and birds in ritualistic poses, and the candles Frank uses to torture and kill wasps. Anything else? Frank has never in his life left the island for more than a few hours at a time; he has a dwarfish friend in the town who he carries on his shoulders; and… he can’t piss without sitting down because of ‘a little accident’ in the underpants department when he was too young to remember.
All this, and a lot more, emerges over the three days covered in these three chapters. There’s also the beginning of a plot: Frank has an older brother, Eric, and the local policeman tells Frank’s father that Eric has escaped from the mental hospital. We don’t learn this immediately, or that Eric is in some kind of secure unit because of his burning of pet dogs and other atrocities. But Frank gets a phone call on the first evening, and we realise during the course of it that of the two, Frank is the sane one. Oh dear. Eric is on his way home, and both he and Frank are fairly sure he’ll be able to get past whoever’s looking for him. In another phone call, on day 3, he lets Frank know that he’s surviving by killing and eating dogs. He has a thing about dogs.
Will that do for now? There’s a big set-piece scene during day 2, when we see how Frank gets into a ridiculous tangle when a wounded rabbit turns on him. Neither his militaristic language nor his weapons with special names prevent him from being a bit crap, really. Don’t ever believe the stories people tell – even, Banks seems to be saying, the ones they tell themselves.
The last time I read a novel whose first-person narrator is a self-aggrandising psychopath I kept wondering how much of it the reader was supposed to believe. That was American Psycho, and – spoiler alert – there is enough circumstantial evidence by the end of it to let us know that we shouldn’t believe anything our man tells us. Ok. But it’s never as simple as that. The reader is on the back foot in novels whose narrators can’t be relied on, a form whose popularity amongst novelists seems to have mushroomed since the 1980s when both of these were published. It’s impossible to tell if the narrative has been deliberately rendered implausible by the author so that we are effectively being warned to take it with a pinch of salt, or if, well, the author isn’t terribly worried about plausibility. We don’t have a madwoman in the attic, but we do have a madman in the phone-box: maybe The Wasp Factory is best read as a modern take on the gothic tradition in which outlandish events occur as a matter of course.
Such as, three members of Frank’s family (not the ones he’s supposed to have killed) have met absurd deaths. The one I can remember, because it made me laugh out loud, is the racist uncle, an émigré to South Africa, killed when a suicidal black man lands on him from a great height. Such as Frank’s lucky finds, first of an adder and later of an unexploded bomb, both of which can be used to bring about deaths that look accidental. And he just happens to have developed such skills in kite-making that he is capable of assembling a monster-kite that will carry off another cousin. Is this unfeasible nonsense the false memory of someone who likes to imagine himself in control and therefore manufactures stories that set him up as a criminal master-mind? Or – and this is what I really believe – is it really the 20-something Banks, in his first novel, having a bit of fun? It’s an episode of The Addams Family, or that cautionary tale in Struwwelpeter in which a naughty boy is taken up by the wind and never seen again. That was ‘Flying Robert’, and now we’ve got Flying Esmeralda.
Whatever. I’m highly impressed by this novel, and not only because it’s a debut. Ideas go fizzing off in all sorts of directions, all the time, and yet it’s beautifully paced. Eric’s disturbing telephone calls don’t come every night, but often enough to keep us interested in guessing where that thread will eventually lead. Details of Frank’s day-to-day life – one chapter contains his epic destruction of one of his pretend dams and the hapless villages below it, another a boozy Saturday night that shows how bad this particular control-freak is at controlling any aspect of the real world – are placed alongside his descriptions of his past exploits. The murders come roughly every two chapters as Banks allows his monster, or would-be monster, to assemble his own back-story piece by piece. I’m guessing that it’s no accident that Frank’s descriptions of his perfect past crimes are in no way matched by what we see in his present life. What he tells us, for instance, of the acting out of his pretended grief following Esmeralda’s death sounds like a cover-up, a revisionist version of the shocked state he was probably really in for over a week.
There are all sorts of other things. I’m even interested in the tenses that Banks uses. We’re used to a continuous present in novels like this, but what we get instead is a form of past tense in which it’s made clear that the narrator doesn’t actually know the outcome. Some things, like his father’s limp or Frank’s significant locations, are described in the present tense, but each day’s events are in the past tense. We get the sense that Frank thinks of himself as the omniscient narrator, in control… but that he’s wrong. Maybe I’ll come back to that.
There’s more back story, to do with Frank’s family and, crucially, his accident. Eric’s mother died in childbirth, and Frank’s mother buggered off as soon as he was born. This was Agnes, who returned in a blaze of motorcycle exhaust-fumes three years later to give birth to another boy, Paul. (He’s the one Frank got rid of by getting him to bash a WW2 bomb conveniently revealed after a storm.) Frank is deeply misogynistic, and it seems to have a lot to do with Agnes and her birthing habits. At the moment of Paul’s birth, according to the story that Frank has been told, the family dog was biting off little Frank’s genitals. The dog, Saul, was strangled by Frank’s father, and its skull is the centrepiece of The Bunker’s altar-like paraphernalia. (It took Frank 30-odd animal burials, brought about by his ritualistic catapulting of mice and gerbils across the water, for him to find Saul’s remains.) Frank is convinced that his father named Paul after him – and that he has kept the genitals he says he found in the dog’s stomach.
So. These chapters are no less weird than the ones that went before. The tone isn’t always pitch-perfect, as the lonely, obsessive Frank is able to make satirical pronouncements on politics and human nature that sound far more like those of a university-educated 30-year-old. But that’s all part of the fantasy world of this novel, and I’m not going to go on about plausibility again. At one stage, early in Chapter 4, Banks even has Frank critiquing his own world-view, comparing his set-up on the island to a state and his own mind as divided into different personas that do not always work in harmony. Ok.
The next chapter is ‘The Wasp Factory’, so maybe we’ll finally get to know about this central feature of his personal mythology.
Chapters 8-12 – to the end
I’d remembered the shock ending before I even began to re-read this – but I hadn’t remembered how many red herrings there are on the way. Eric is a red herring, and the story of the incident that triggered his breakdown just a gothic freak-show. Another one is the huge cache of cordite that Frank’s father keeps in the cellar. (What’s the first rule of fiction? If you see a loaded gun, someone’s going to end up using it. Well, Eric might try, but he doesn’t succeed in spite of all the Wasp Factory’s warnings. Never trust self-invented superstitions.) There’s the ‘unreliable narrator’ thread. Except no, there isn’t: everything Frank has told us about the murders and other deaths is true. Because… the unreliability lies elsewhere entirely, and it’s with Frank’s father. Even at the moment of the cataclysmic discovery, Banks is able, through him, to lead both Frank and the reader down a false trail for some pages.
Frank is finally able to get into the secret chamber – sorry, his father’s study – and has an unhappy moment as he grieves for the tiny genitalia he finds there, pickled in a jar. But he also finds something else: tampons and male hormones, the latter carefully marked with dates for months to come. His father has always had soft skin, and fine hairs on his arms, and now Frank understands why: he’s a woman! He goes to the room where his father snores, drunk. Frank has a knife, forces him to undress – and discovers a very real ‘cock and balls’ just where you might expect them. Ah. Chapter 11 ends with Frank’s father about to tell him the real story. And Chapter 12 is Frank – Frances, not Francis – coming to terms with the fact that literally every aspect of his personal identity, mind-set and world-view is going to have to be re-calibrated.
What I like about this novel is that while all the games playing, the wrong-footing of the reader and the dark humour make it highly readable, they aren’t the whole story. As the novel goes on, Banks allows Frank to become more and more aware of what he calls his own ‘limitations’, and he doesn’t mean the physical ones. He means his fear of the outside world, the almost pathetic smallness of his own experience, his ‘personal mythology’ – he calls it that – which is all that sustains him. Chapter 8, ‘The Wasp Factory’, is Banks’s biting satire not only on religious belief but on the theological paraphernalia that goes with it. Frank has his altar and his catechism, his confessions, his relics and ‘substances’ – earwax and fingernails rather than the blood of Christ – and they are all locked into the workings of a smoothly-running contraption that is staggering in its ingenuity. The fact that it is entirely based on Frank’s pre-adolescent fascination with the torture of insects is the point: at a fundamental level, Frank knows how tiny his universe is even while believing in his own mastery of it.
Except by the end, of course, it’s all taken away from him. The new Frank of Chapter 12, the one who is only just beginning to come to terms with the sexual identity forced upon him by a father who had had it with women, seems almost lost in wonderment. There’s no anger, no big explosion (literally), no cataclysmic storm (also literally). Instead, there’s Eric asleep on the dunes following his failed attempt to blow up the house. And Frank seems all right with it. Eric has come all that way to fulfil a crazed project of his own – you can’t avoid the smell of burning dogs and sheep by the end – but what he will have to come to terms with is something entirely separate from that. Here is Frank, reminding himself right up to the last line, that Eric doesn’t have a brother at all. He has a sister.