Iain Banks’s first novel is macabre, tending toward the grotesque and gothic. It is driven by an overwhelmingly obsessive first-person narration. Frank Cauldhame speaks coolly and calmly about strange events but is, at the same time, capable of humor, irony, self-analysis, and an objective view of his strange situation. He lives a ritual life, stocking his Sacrifice Poles with the heads of dead animals and then urinating on them, reading the omens of the Wasp Factory, or communing with spirits in the Bunker. He is aware of this, speaking of “my personal mythology.” He is also aware that life is filled with symbols, such as the alternative deaths represented in the twelve positions of the Wasp Factory clock face. Frank, his father, his brother, and the previous generation of Cauldhames (a name that may evoke “called home,” the action of Eric’s flight, or “cold home”) are classic Scottish eccentrics, apparently logical, orderly, and civil people whose lives are grounded in deeply perverse, violent, and twisted versions of reality.
At the heart of the novel is misogyny. Angus, rejected and partly crippled by his flighty, hippie wife, has tried to turn his daughter into a son, isolating Frank from the world and distorting her sexuality with drugs for fourteen years. Frank hates women, thinking them weak and stupid, a conclusion derived on the surface from watching television but probably based on being abandoned by his mother and by his own...
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Of course Iain Banks wanted to give us some horror. The infamous maggots scene in The Wasp Factory - explaining just why the narrator's brother, Eric, goes "mad" - is prepared with all the machinery of a melodramatic revelation. (The horror for first-time readers is that they will see it coming.) You can sense a little authorial relish. No wonder the paperback edition quoted the reviewers who hated the book: "The lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty", and so on. The novel so scandalised some, and so tickled the fancy of those who relish the breaking of taboos, that its cleverness, and its literariness, hardly got noticed. Why does Frank, the novel's 16-year-old narrator, live on an island? Why has his father kept his existence hidden from all legal authorities? Why is he left to wander the empty shores? Why does he entertain himself with shooting or setting fire to animals? All these questions can be answered from the plot of the novel; they can also be answered by thinking of the literary models that Banks is imitating or parodying.
First, the plot. Frank and his father live on the "island" because his father is an "old hippy" who sought a retreat from civilisation, and had some family money "secreted away". (The retreat is partial: the island is separated from the mainland only by a creek, which has a sturdy bridge spanning it. A local town is within walking distance.) Frank is an unregistered person because his father has decided to conduct an experimental trial, with Frank as the subject. His son is left to fill his solitary days with pseudo-religious rituals and cruel experiments on the local wildlife. Eric has been sent to a psychiatric hospital; his father is either drunk or locked in his mysterious study.
But then there are the literary answers to those questions. Frank is on his island because Banks has in mind the original island-dweller of British fiction, Robinson Crusoe. He was also abandoned to look at nature and invent his own theology (though in his case it reassuringly corresponded to Daniel Defoe's own brand of Protestantism). Frank is unknown to schools or social services because he is being given the "natural" education recommended by the revolutionary 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was codified in his didactic novel Emile, which showed how you should bring up children among the beauties of nature, allowing them to delight in flora and fauna, and roam free without too many clothes on. All books should be avoided, with the exception of ... Robinson Crusoe. Human nature is good, but civilisation is corrupting. It was sophisticated primitivism.
"Children are cruel; savages are cruel", was Dr Johnson's riposte to Rousseau (for whose ideas his companion, Boswell, had a sneaking admiration). Frank, having been chemically wounded by his own father, "naturally" wreaks violence on nature. But then nature teaches violence. He notices horrid details: a dead frog that has been dropped by a bird, the particular note of torment in an unseen animal's cry of pain. His most sacred relic is Old Saul, the skull of the dog which, he is told, castrated him when he was a toddler. Animals, he believes, come under his power "through the simple but ultimate surrender of death", a lesson learned from the great book of nature open in front of him. He kills irksome humans - a nasty cousin who killed his pet rabbits, an irritating younger half-brother, another cousin who qualifies for extinction by being a girl - because this seems natural behaviour.
Oddly, but by authorial calculation, the dispatching of animals - being done but for amusement - is more shocking than the murders of child relatives. The horror is not so much in the actions themselves as in the blank-toned recitation of his engrossingly bloody games. Frank's "voice" is the important thing, and here too Banks must have a literary precedent in mind, and one appropriate for the theme of "horror". Frank's father might make us think of the original twisted amateur scientist, Victor Frankenstein. He is the same sort of crank. "I think my father used to work in a university for a few years after he graduated, and he might have invented something." At the heart of Mary Shelley's novel was the narrative of the "monster" that Frankenstein created, an artificial innocent turned to violence by his discovery of man's treachery.
Like Frank, Frankenstein's monster has been deceived. He has been promised a female mate, but Frankenstein, Shelley's "modern Prometheus", has destroyed this proto-creature in disgust. The trick played on Frank is also to do with gender. Frank's father created his bizarre household in an attempt to remake the world from its primitive elements. (Frank's mother - his father's foe - is another "free spirit", who arrives at the island on a motorbike to give birth to a mysteriously fathered son, and then immediately leaves, her mothering duties apparently over.) Frank's father feeds his son lies, though some of these are at least comical. "I believed Pathos was one of the Three Musketeers, Fellatio was a character in Hamlet." But then primitivism is all trickery.
· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Iain Banks for a discussion on Thursday July 10 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Doors open at 6.30pm, talk at 7pm. Entry is £8 (includes a glass of wine). To reserve a ticket call 020 7886 9281 or email firstname.lastname@example.org