This is a deeply unpleasant novel but no less magnificent for that. Its horrific contents brought scathing condemnations from reviewers on its release in 1984 and now, with the book's reputation assured, the publishers have cheekily reprinted extracts in the opening pages. "Soars to the level of mediocrity," writes one, while another adds: "... be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it." "The lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty", "a literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquency: inflicting outrages on animals" and "a repulsive piece of work" are some of the other barbs offered.
Twenty-three years on, the outraged reviewers sound comical. The horrors of The Wasp Factory make for unsettling reading but they're hardly shocking. How times change.
Our anti-hero is Frank Cauldhame, a deranged 17-year-old living on an island with his father. Guided by a bizarre religion of his own devising, Frank controls the island as its military dictator. Using his armory of catapults and home-made explosives, he sacrifices some animals and wages war on others, his actions guided by the prophesies of the 'wasp factory' that he keeps in the attic.
The novel begins with the news that Frank's brother Eric, a dog-burning maniac who makes Frank seem harmless, has escaped from the mental hospital he was in and is making his way home. As Eric draws closer Banks gradually fills us in on the events of Frank's childhood.
We hear about the three children Frank murdered while still a child himself ("It was just a stage I was going through"), we discover what it was that pushed Eric over the edge (you really don't want to know - but Banks will tell you anyway) and, finally, we learn what Frank's father has been hiding in his study.
Banks's characterisation of Frank is pin sharp - he remains repellant and yet compelling throughout. He's never sympathetic but his calm rationalisation of his behaviour and the fact that his brother is even crazier help to keep us on the right side. The writing is wonderful and Banks is happy to let the novel end without forcing any kind of meaning on us.
A study of power and its abuses? A satire of religion? A case for the link between masculinity and violence? You can read any or all of those things into this work.
Darkly funny and occasionally surreal, The Wasp Factory is a great book.