Speculations on Reality in The Wasp Factory
Note: this review contains detailed spoilers.
The artwork by Jim Burns that originally illustrated this piece in Vector.
The principal plot motivation in Iain Banks’s 1984 Gothic novel The Wasp Factory is the threatened return of the narrator’s brother, Eric Cauldhame, from the asylum in which he has been incarcerated for some years. This imminent invasion of the world Frank Cauldhame has created for himself precipitates a personal crisis in which his true nature is ultimately revealed. By the close of the book, however, Eric has not actually made a substantial appearance, an absence which provokes the question: does Eric really exist, or is he a product of the joint imaginations of Frank and his father Angus? If the former is the case, then the Gothic aspect of The Wasp Factory provides a framework for its meaning. If there is evidence that Eric is substantial, this meaning may still remain but its significance is potentially diluted.
The difficulty the reader has in determining the truth lies in the unreliability of Frank Cauldhame as narrator. Almost from the opening lines, Frank demonstrates a vivid and unusual imagination which drives his behaviour. Furthermore, we are quickly advised that Frank has received the majority of his education at the hands of his father, an eccentric whom Frank believes to be unreliable in the information he has provided. This doubling serves to internalise the novel, and Frank’s physical distancing from normal society emphasises this. Frank and his father live on an island, linked to a small Scottish town by a causeway. This separation is again doubled by Frank being obliged to pretend to be a visiting relative as his father never registered his birth. Legally and formally, Frank does not exist: ‘My story was that I was the orphaned son of my father’s long lost brother, and only staying on occasional extended holidays on the island’ (p. 72).
The Wasp Factory is a Gothic novel: the island and the big old house are analogous to the Gothic castle, and both Frank and his father are grotesques, lonely people whose lives are steered by a single ‘truth’ which has become obsession. Frank is also a physical grotesque: a male castrated when he was three-years-old, as a result of an attack by the family dog Old Saul. It is as a consequence of this demasculinisation that Frank has developed his obsession with war games and means of destruction. His life has become a paranoid fantasy, with the totemic sacrific poles designed as ‘an early warning system and deterrent rolled into one’ (p. 10) and the elaborate devices of Frank’s oracle, the Wasp Factory itself, as a framework of what Banks himself calls ‘incantatory ritual’ (Science Fiction Eye 6, p. 26). Frank has killed three people, all whilst as a child, his younger brother and two cousins by a variety of cruel and usual means. All of his games, and thus most of his actions in the book – with the exception of brief encounters with his father and drunken evenings with his sole friend, the dwarf Jamie – are overtly militaristic, and he views this explicitly as a substitute for his perceived loss of sexuality: ‘Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill… I consider myself an honorary man. We strike out, push through, thrust and take. The fact that it is only an analogue of all this sexual terminology I am incapable of does not discourage me’ (p. 118).
If Frank is an unreliable narrator, what evidence do we have for Eric’s existence within the narrative? The novel is punctuated by a series of telephone conversations between Frank and Eric. Each of these calls is initiated by Eric, but it is telling that on each occasion Angus does not hear the ring of the phone, and implies that he believes Frank to have been phoning out. The calls themselves are characterised by games, paradoxes and confusion of identity. On the first occasion Frank asks Eric where he is, the reply is:
“Here! Where are you?”
“If we’re both here, why are we bothering with the phone?” (p. 17)
Later Eric claims to be Frank in a particularly labyrinthine conversation and Frank is persuaded to call himself ‘Eric’ (p. 98).
One of the reasons for Eric’s imprisonment was his habit of catching dogs from the town and setting fire to them. During his phone conversations with Frank he vehemently denies ever doing this, and becomes quite distraught and angry even at the mention of animals, whilst at the same time taunting Frank with the mention of eating hot dogs. It is, however, Frank who appears to have reason to hate dogs, though he claims that it is only Old Saul he despises:
‘Old Saul was the culprit, Old Saul had gone down in history and my personal mythology as the Castrator’ (p. 103). It is Frank who devises a flame-throwing device with which he devastates a colony of rabbits on the island (pp. 34-6), who incinerates his toy in a ‘War’ between the Aerosols and the Soldiers (p. 24), and who invents in the Wasp Factory a bizarre device in which a wasp is burnt alive. As Frank says when describing the town’s reaction to Eric: ‘[A]s was probably inevitable a lot of kids started to think that I was Eric, or that I got up to the same tricks’ (p. 52).
Frank’s father, Angus, is a contributor to Frank’s paranoia, and his obsession with games. For example, he has measured every item in the household and expects Frank to have memorised the figures (p. 11). He has apparently wilfully miseducated his child, telling him that ‘Fellatio was a character in Hamlet’ (p. 14) and other such tricks. In a further example of Gothic doubling, Angus too has his chemical experiments carried out in a locked laboratory. It is this unreliable figure who tells Frank that Eric has escaped, and it is stressed on several occasions that nobody else knows. Frank even tells Jamie that he is surprised that it hasn’t been on the news (p. 74).
Frank’s discovery of ‘his’ true nature comes when he finally achieves access to his father’s study, where he discover a supply of male hormones, tampons and Potassium Bromide. However, Frank immediately jumps to the conclusion that his father is really a woman. This displacement is in keeping with Frank’s attribution of the burning dogs to Eric, and to other incidents. Although he is supposedly four years older, it is nine-year-old Eric who cries when the children’s pet rabbits are burned with the first flame-throwers, but five-year-old Frank, who merely vows revenge on the perpetrator, and that for upsetting his brother rather than the death of his pets (p. 38). This leads to the first murder, that of Frank’s cousin Blyth. The subsequent murders reveal that on each occasion Eric is absent. When Blyth is killed he is sleeping, leaving Frank to play on his own. Eric is assisting his father whilst Frank keeps their youngest brother Paul out of the way, and thus when Paul dies. Esmeralda’s murder comes whilst Eric is on a school trip. Frank actually says: ‘I had decided I would try to murder Esmeralda before she… arrived for their holiday. Eric was away on a school cruise, so there would only be me and her’ (p. 88).
Frank also alleges that their father dressed Eric as a girl for the first three years of his life. Three was the age of Frances when attacked by Old Saul, and the point where ‘she’ becomes ‘he’ as Frank. Again Frank has displaced events onto another, possibly to avoid dealing with their consequences. Eric’s break-down also comes during a separation from Frank, when he goes away to become a doctor like his father. Two aspects of this are significant. Firstly the horrific incident which provokes Eric’s collapse involves a dying child with maggots in its skull (p. 142), which may be seen as a conflation of images which are all prevalent in Frank’s imagination – he has a collection of skulls including those of the pet rabbits and Old Saul, he has killed three small children, and at one point views distant sheep: ‘slow, like maggots, over the land, eating’ (p. 150). Secondly, this incident and its subsequent consequences occur at the age when Frank would ordinarily be undergoing puberty, at the point when a tomboy would start to become a girl.
If Eric does not exist outside of Frank’s imagination, then it is reasonable to consider that the murders are equally a product of his militaristic fantasies. Whether they happened or not is less important than the means of their alleged happening. The ingenuity with which Frank’s imagination devises means of killing people is surely a symbol of the author’s intent. Iain Banks has said in various interviews that The Wasp Factory is as attack on ‘the British male military establishment’ and Angus’s manipulation of Frank’s gender perception is a clear representation of that. Eric’s rôle is as fuel for Frank’s paranoid fantasy, the encroaching menace from across the mainland, and though it isn’t specified, from the east? Eric’s reality and the reality of his actions give Frank genuine cause for some of his actions and thus dilute Banks’s argument; but as a figment of Frank’s warped mind, he becomes a potent symbol for what Banks considers to be the malaise in the military mind.
In the Gothic novel such symbolism is common, and there are further examples in The Wasp Factory; I have already mentioned that the entire novel is set on an island and features a large, old house. Banks explains this: ‘Any time a castle appears in any book [of mine] in a way it stands for the individual. Frank is almost literally cut off… literally insular in his perceptions’ (SF Eye # 6, p. 26). This makes it clear that what happens on the island, to a very great extent, correlates to what is happening in Frank’s mind.
At the very end of the novel, however, Eric does almost make a physical appearance. Frank is out walking when he hears the sound of an animal in pain and then sees a dog on fire. He of course blames Eric, but this incident occurs just minutes after Frank himself has been playing with a fire at the tip and expressing dissatisfaction with the modest results (p. 150). Is this latest dog-burning more displacement by Frank? When he returns to the house he makes his discovery about his father, but his challenge to Angus is interrupted by an apocalyptic scene in which a shed is set alight, apparently by Eric. There are explosions, but Frank puts the fire out, just like he’d earlier boasted doing with another fire on the island. Afterwards Eric is once again missing, but Frank persuades his father to tell him the truth. The Wasp Factory closes with Frank, now aware of ‘his’ feminine nature, looking down on Eric, as he lies sleeping peacefully. ‘He feels no pain’ (p. 182). Frank’s demon, the artificial masculinity he has had forced upon him and which he himself has forced, is laid to rest and thus so is Eric.
It remains unclear whether Frank Cauldhame actually has a brother named Eric; although it seems not from the evidence of Frank’s own narrative that the acts attributed to Eric were in fact carried out or imagined by Frank. As Frank says in the final scene:
‘I was proud; a fierce and noble presence in my lands, a crippled warrior…
‘Now I find I was the fool all along’ (p. 183).
All quotes are from the 1985 Futura edition.
(This article originally appeared in Vector 191 dated January/February 1997. Thanks to Vector’s then editor Andrew M Butler for editing and advice, to members of Acnestis who also commented on drafts, and to current Vector editor Shana Worthen for finding me a copy to reprint. Thanks to Jim Burns for the artwork, the original of which is on my wall. Thanks also to Iain Banks for refusing to say if my theory is right or wrong.)