Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, and, Iain Banks’ 1984 The Wasp Factory. (Though to be fair, Banks at least attempts an agenda.)
The novel is the story of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen year old who is open to the reader about having killed three times in his youth. Baldly psychotic, he goes into detail describing the fetishes and rituals of his life — the bones, skulls, candles, and totems that protect the small island in Scotland where he and his eccentric father call home. If his own problems aren’t bad enough, Frank’s brother Eric is certified crazy, and at the outset of the story escapes the mental hospital. Phone calls to Frank occurring sporadically thereafter, each one draws Eric closer and closer to home. Little known to Frank, the ultimate conflict has been lying under his nose the whole time.
A smash success, the version of The Wasp Factory I read indicates the book was re-printed 35 times up to 2011, and probably has been additionally in the time since. And it’s easy to see why it’s popular. Banks’ clear, direct style openly displays the mind of a psychotic in a situation that builds suspense admirably. Frank’s mind is a bizarre labyrinth of paranoia, normalcy, and sadism. One reads with appall the details of his behavior, yet keeps reading for the compelling heightening of suspense. Banks scatters hints as to the reality behind the Cauldhames’ less than conventional family throughout Frank’s account and by the time the reader arrives at the grand reveal, with the suspense at max, they don’t know what to expect.
As for the quality of storytelling and plot structuring, The Wasp Factory does indeed remain sensationalist fiction. As Banks’ himself points out in the preface, the story fails to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, there is little of value to the conclusion, and indeed, from certain standpoints, the logic which threads back through the story leads only to wisps of relevancy. This is not to say the story is worthless and that delving into the mind of a psychotic has no benefit to society, only that cleverness in plotting gets a writer so far, meaningful themes and thought-provoking material, much further. Like a cloud floating through the air, it’s oh so easy to lay back and watch it float by overhead. A little bit of high pressure, however, and it dries up, leaving nothing.
In the end, The Wasp Factory is a gripping read — and I don’t often use the word gripping. Banks digs into the head of a teenage Ted Kazynski in calm, creepy fashion, revealing the mind of a psychotic as he goes about his sacralized life. The macabre abounds, Banks’ narrative is as focused as his prose. Neither beautiful nor ugly, it lays bare a sinister world that sucks the reader in. Beyond a flash piece of entertainment, however, The Wasp Factory has little to offer. Sensationalism it is. (How this book has never been made into a movie is beyond me.)