Objectionable? Oh yes. Meritless? Oh no.
Hello, fellow readers of Bound And Gagged! You may remember me from my guest review of the Ender’s Game movie. Well, I am back and I have a lot to say about a certain book: The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.
If you have been following this blog from the beginning, as I have, you may have noticed something about many of the books that seem to get banned; often times they aren’t guilty of whatever grounds they were banned for. For instance, according to The American Library Association, The Hunger Games apparently had occult/satanic elements in it. Who knew? This trend got me thinking; what about the books out there that actually DESERVE scrutiny? No sooner had that thought entered my head than did I think of The Wasp Factory. If there was ever a book guilty of violence, Satanism, disturbing imagery, and plain old evilness this is it.
I vividly remember the time I first picked this book up in the store and looked at the back cover. The description of the plot was remarkable in itself, but what really caught my attention was the reviews the publisher chose to include in its showcase. “Macabre, bizarre, and impossible to put down,” The Financial Times said. But then immediately after was something I had never seen on a dustjacket in my life: “There’s nothing to force you, having been warned, to read it; nor would I recommend it,” said The Scotsman. What other book in the history of time has been so proud of its negative reviews? On that alone I knew I had to read this book.
The shortest summary of this book I can give is Frank Cauldhame is a 16-year-old living a very sheltered life in rural Scotland, being raised by a father who clearly took too much acid in the sixties. For reasons that are not fully clear, Frank has very violent tendencies. The book opens on him patrolling the island he and his father live on, checking to make sure that his ritualistic poles are still fully loaded with the skulls of animals he has killed. He feels these poles form some sort of protective barrier around their property. Why is this? Because he has infused the poles with his urine, saliva, toe jam, and other such bodily substances.
Black magic rituals? Check.
Frank recounts the tales of the three murders he has committed:
-He put a poisonous snake inside his cousin’s prosthetic leg because the cousin had set all of their pet rabbits on fire,
-He convinced his half-brother to whack an old bombshell from WWII on the nose with a stick because he was sick of dealing with mixed-family relations, and
-He built a massive kite and then got his (extremely) young cousin’s hand trapped in the strings and she was blown out over the ocean. He did this one just because he had killed two boys and felt he should even it out by killing a girl too.
Wanton disregard of human life? Check.
At the beginning of the book we learn that Frank’s brother, Eric, has escaped the mental hospital and is most likely traveling on foot to see Frank. The reason Eric was locked up? A history of setting dogs on fire. Speaking of animals on fire, Frank torches an entire underground network of rabbit tunnels, so that is at least three characters who set animals on fire for no real reason.
Animal cruelty? Check.
The book takes you through the process of getting to know Frank’s world, his rituals, and why he does them. Part of the disturbing power of this book is that you start to see the method to his madness, and after a while the first-person POV works its magic and you stop being completely aware of how crazy everything is. You start to believe that you are actually reading a fantasy novel where magic is possible, and Frank is wielding it effectively. At some point Frank performs a spell (for lack of a better term) to telepathically communicate with Eric. He feels the spell was successful, but when he talks with Eric the next day he asks if he felt anything the night before; Eric says no. Suddenly the reader has to confront the fact that they have been listening to a madman’s perspective so long that they forgot to question it; they have now shared the thinking pattern of a psychotic child serial-killer.
For me, the most disturbing part of the book is when we learn why Eric lost his mind. He was working in a hospital with the babies who were born so deformed they were not expected to live past age one. One of them in particular had to wear a metal cap because its skull didn’t fuse together properly. One day the child was even less responsive than usual, and Eric saw some movement at the edge of the metal cap. He removed the cap to find a nest of maggots had carved into the baby’s skull and were feasting on its brain.
Something so unspeakably awful that there is no way a benevolent God could possibly exist? Check.
The book ends with a plot twist: It turns out Frank is actually Francis, a girl, and his/her father decided to use her as a nature/nurture experiment. Frank was told that he/she/it was castrated by a vicious dog as a toddler, but it turns out that the peach fuzz on his/her/its face and lack of breasts and menstrual cycles was caused by being secretly fed hormone replacements. Throughout most of the book Frank never says “I feel the need to kill and control everything because Freud deems I should overcompensate for my lost manliness,” but the book closes with the conclusion that if there was never a penis to lose then there is no reason to continue the killing and rituals. Frank is still pretty grossed out by the idea of bringing life into the world instead of taking it out, but he/she/it is prepared to consider adapting his/her/its gender identity to match this new information.
Offensive and potentially dangerous implications on the concept of gender? Check.
By now I think it is clear that if there was ever a book to ban, this is it. It is often criticized as an infantile attempt at eliciting shock, and I think that judgment is in large part accurate. Yet, I believe this book still has value. Would I hand it to my fourteen year-old cousin? Probably not. Would I yank it out of his hands? Again, probably not.
What is the worst thing that could happen if this book fell into the hands of a young, impressionable kid? Any well-adjusted teenager would recognize it for what it is; a book about insanity told from first person perspective. They might have nightmares about maggots for a few days, but that is probably about it. A mal-adjusted teenager? Perhaps one who was considering doing something violent? One of two things would happen; either this book would give them a sense of catharsis and the violence would be delayed or assuaged, or this book wouldn’t change a damn thing. People who are sick enough to commit violent crimes for the sake of violence aren’t going to be triggered by a book here or a movie there. They might show an unusual preference for violent disturbing books such as this, but cause and effect should not be confused.
What if a teenager who was struggling with gender identity came across this book? I feel the twist ending is highly insulting to men everywhere, and I do not subscribe to the belief that men, in general, would turn to murder if they were deprived of their penis. That being said, I don’t really think the author actually believed that either. He very clearly set out to write a disturbing, controversial book. I do not believe that he meant to make any wide implications on gender; I believe he wanted a shocking ending and he used what he could. My hope is that anyone struggling with gender identity would see that this book never really tried to speak accurately on that topic, and I hope that any cis-gendered people would be smart enough to not base their opinions of gender identity on this either. Perhaps this book would even raise the question in their minds and they would seek out more legitimate answers. If nothing else, maybe it could start the conversation.
So what do I think about the idea of limiting access to this abhorrent, nightmare of a book? I cannot imagine how the question of putting it in an elementary school library could ever come up, but I also can’t imagine an elementary-school-aged kid being interested in it. Middle school? I would probably ask for a parental permission slip. Once it becomes a question about a high school library, though, I believe it should be on the shelves. The publishers were kind enough to print the warnings from others as clear as day on the back; if a high-school student thinks they can hack it they should be allowed to find out if they are as tough as they think they are. Even better, perhaps they would know themselves enough to see the warnings and say “nope, not for me.” Maybe confronting truly dark things such as maggots eating a baby’s brain from the safety of a reading chair could be a way to practice coping with traumatic events, or maybe feel better about one’s own life. For every kid who is too fragile to handle this there are 1000 who can dust themselves off afterwards and carry on with their lives unchanged. I don’t think those 1000 should be deprived for the sake of the one.
This book is one of the most objectionable pieces of writing I have ever seen, but I can still think of good things that could come from it being widely available. I am grateful for the experience of reading it, and I wouldn’t deprive it to anyone who asked for that experience as well. That being said, I also wouldn’t force the experience on anyone.