As many of you who know me, know, I am a eagre booster of Comrade Iain Banks and his fine output of novels. To those who read science fiction to any extent, you will know him, and perhaps praise him, though I know there are many revilers out there, with reasons understandable, for disliking Iain M. Banks, author of bestselling novels, by science fictional standards, Consider Phleabas, Use of Weapons, Inversions, Matter, The Algebraist. To the more hoighty-toity types out there who must have their literature with a capital L, a group I can sometimes be included as well, Iain Banks is known for his ‘classics’ of a odd fiction like Dead Air, Complicity, The Crow Road and….The Wasp Factory, his debut novel and one of the nastiest and most unsettling pieces of fiction I have yet to read. Much nastier, and shocking than much written by that Chuck fellow…what was his name, whose outrage mongering seems a tad forced of late. Ahem. I like The Wasp Factory, but this essay isnt exactly a panegyric, or a summary; the post below reminds that reading the book first is a good idea. Besides, panegyrics are boring, though hardly dead if one bothers to read biographies or the newspaper, and the real meat ofThe Wasp Factory, besides all the murder and brutality and delightful black humour is its take on what is called in academic shorthand ‘the construction of gender’.
That gender, our shared social understanding of what men and women, and those in our minds caught in between, is constructed is not much in debate nowadays, at least amongst many of the more ‘intellectually’ motivated. The list of feminist scholars and theorists, amongst many others who have questioned how ingrained in our bones, bodies and genes the social activities of sex is a very long one indeed, and I won’t go into it here. Likewise, the grotesque and its relationship to the body, that grotesque equals disharmonious (to borrow from The Prisoner), both for good or ill, especially as described by Mikhail Bakhtin (an It-theorist if there ever was one in English studies) and others after him, is important here, but not crucial. I’ve tried to go light on the theory; not because theory is bad, per se, but they do tend to bore non-academic audiences who might actually give a hoot.
I also hate to spoil the endings of books, but in this case knowing the ending of The Wasp Factory is absolutely necessary to an understanding of the book’s themes.
Spoilers abound ahead: you have been warned.
UPDATE: I just learned two days (August 21) that Iain Banks linked to this essay, which is a great honour. I’ve cleaned the essay up a bit, at it been published shortly before a long move, but it remains mostly the same, just more readable, hopefully.
In the surprise conclusion, the reader learns that the protagonist Frank Cauldhame, an aggressive, obsessed, disturbed and ‘slightly’ murderous (only three so far, he swears!) teenager who believes himself to be castrated, is actually a girl; her father had lied about an accident in Frank’s (or Frances’) very early childhood in order to raise her as a boy. Though often described as a new kind of gothic horror novel, The Wasp Factory is also a particularly effective, and particularly gruesome, satire on the social and scientific construction of gender; Frank is a woman, who believes herself to be man, who hates women, and acts out a male identity centred on the soldier-hero, over-the-top violence and aggressive adventurism, in a style that
reminds me strongly of a cross between Dennis the Menace and Vlad Tepes. The Wasp Factory also fits in nicely with Banks’ other works, as his science fiction novels set in the Culture universe frequently reject the narrow and rigid classification of gender according to biological sex; it appears to be an abiding fascination, at the very least.
As a first caveat of this essay, I would like to avoid any sort of “pronounal confusion”, as Marjorie Garber puts it in her essay “Spare Parts”, about the mixed and uncertain nature of Frank’s sex. Throughout The Wasp Factory, and in his personal history, Frank identifies himself solely as a man, an incomplete man maybe, but in his words, at least “an honorary man” who may lack a penis, but could “feel it in my bones, in my uncastrated genes” (154) that he is biologically and socially male. The accident that robs Frank of his penis, physical proof of masculinity, is caused by his father’s do , Old Saul, or so Frank is told.
According to the fragmentary story Frank is able to piece together over his youth and teenaged years, when he is three years old , his “bow-legged and ancient white bulldog…kept…because it was so ugly and it didn’t like women” (133) tears off his genitals, even as upstairs his youngest brother Paul is being born (Paul will soon meet his end at Frank’s hands for sharing Old Saul’s name, just a little reminder that Frank is nuts). His father tells him that when he cut open Old Saul, he “found tiny genitals” (140) which are then stored in his father’s locked and inaccessible study until the end of the novel, when Frank sneaks in and finds a jar of “clear liquid…in the alcohol was a tiny, torn set of male genitalia” (228), the physical proof of Frank’s
truncated masculinity. Deprived of this proof, however, the skull of Old Saul, dug up by Frank, becomes a horrific totem, his “old enemy in my power” and goes down, by his own admission, in his “history and personal mythology as the Castrator” (133), a terrifying power to be respected and nearly worshipped.
And yet this incident, like his entire gender identity, is a lie carried out at great lengths by his father, who tells Frank, drunkenly, at the very end, was part of “an experimen, sall” (231). His father, Angus, is a scientific man, fond of giving visiting relatives and his children “impromptu lectures on cancer of the colon or on tapeworms” and is described by Frank as a “doctor of chemistry, or perhaps biochemistry” with a great deal of information rattling around in his head on ordinary medicine and other sundry subjects; Frank says his father “because of his medical training, [is] never bothered by the suffering of lower beings” (141) including the animals Frank kills or tortures. Due to Old Saul’s disfiguring attack, which does scar the three year old ‘Frank’, Angus takes the opportunity to conduct an experiment on the gender of his child, and so he constructs an elaborate lie, feeding his daughtertestosterone and other hormones, as well as bromide to prevent overt sexual arousal from too much androgen, in his food while at the same time encouraging his
masculine activities and telling him the savaged vagina is actually the gored remnants of his male genitalia. The testicles in the jar were sculpted from wax and kept as proof in case Frank “started to query about whether [he] was really castrated”. The testosterone gives Frank a heavier frame and, as a teenager, a wispy beard, and yet he is horrified to learn that what he “thought was the stump of a penis is really an enlarged clitoris” and more horrifying still to Frank, that despite the testosterone and the mauling that left him with “scarred thighs, [his] outer labia a bit chewed up”, he is still “a normal female, capable of intercourse and giving birth”.
Though I wasn’t immediately struck by the point, another re read of the novel recently has convinced me that Frank’s rebirth as a male from the ashes of a deliberately suppressed female identity, as part of a scientific experiment no less, is a grim satire of the scientific attitude towards gender. It certainly fits in with Banks’
standard black sense of humour about these types of things, and with his established interest in the broad and not so rigid delineations of gender and sex, and of his tendency to subvert the still dominant idea that gender is essentials, linked hand in hand in physical sex. How else to you explain a novel like Inversions where the protagonists change sex and have each other’s babies, or are pregnant for centuries?
But back to that satire on science and sex (no white lab coats and miniskirts here, a la Japanese eroge games). Angus Cauldhame is set up as a Frankstein-like figure, a trite point to make but the very fact that he is a biochemist supplies a solidarity with Shelley’s famous experimenter and Promethean; most obviously, his new son is named Frank. As Garber points out, Shelley’s Frankenstein is “a literary moment that marks the place of technological intervention” (207) into gender and sex, but rather then crafting a new lifeform from nothing but base chemicals, Angus uses his combination of paternal , technological and scientific power to craft a new son.
As a scientitic figure, Angus has a broad array of knowledge, though he is obsessed with strange ideas and theories: that the Earth is a Moebius Strip, that he can tell what someone ate and their very personality by their flatulence. He is also obsessed by order and regularity, not the least because he must maintain the hormones in Frank continuously, but also by a useless recitation of facts: he demands that Frank know the “height, length, breadth, volume of just about every part of the house” (Banks 7), and quizzes Frank constantly on this knowledge. Home-schooled, and rather bright, Frank is nonetheless frequently, and jokingly, lied to by his father, who made him think that, “for years…Pathos was one the Three Musketeers, Fellatio a character in Hamlet” and so on. (Incidentally, having friends who do this jokingky, especially about science and technology, sharpens your knowledge greatly). Frank now believes at sixteen that his father “has to tell me the truth” (11), but of course, ironically, Frank’s entire life is a rather large lie carried out by Angus. Finally, his father’s own desire to remove the feminine from his life, after his leg is broken by his second wife’s, and Frank’s mother’s, escape from their house shortly after the birth of Paul; his hatred for this carries over to Frank, who says, “I hate her name, the idea of her” (82). His father’s paternal authority is built on lies and a dislike of women; his scientific authority is rigid, demanding and when not eccentric beyond any sort of practicality, somewhat unimaginative and dogmatic.
These details of Angus’s scientific and paternal outlook both reflect and make a mockery of modern medical practice when it comes to the indeterminancy of gender. Obviously, by creating Frank from his young daughter, Agnus is throwing the argument of biological essentialism out the window, that born a female you must remain forever so, and yet he still assumes, though not entirely with conviction, that the castration lie and the steady flow of testosterone, creating physical proof of masculinity, will be enough to make Frank his son and not his daughter. However, Agnus has created a transsexual, of sorts, for no matter how much both he and Frank wish him to be a male, Frank is some kind of pseudohemaprodite, hardly a success of scientific experimentation
Agnus’ experiment is a to psy-turvy reversal of medical establishment thinking. According to researcher Alison Shaw, an uncertain gender at birth in a hospital is a kind of medical emergency, and met with horror, with the standard reaction by many doctors and parents “to assign the infant to the male or female sex, and the associated subsequent gender role” (Shaw 25). If the ambiguity is too extreme to easily hide, often “medical treatment and surgery is deemed necessary” with the assumption underlying that an ambiguous sex, the physical proof, can be somehow corrected or cured, as “intersex individuals are ‘really’ either male or female.” By the well-intentioned use of “correct management” a person of ambiguous sex can “lead the sexual and reproductive life of ‘normal’ men and women”, by corrective surgery, by the introduction of hormones and raising the child according to cultural norms of gender. Interestingly enough, Frank actually knows a Big Secret, as he puts it, about himself, but it is not the one revealed by the book; instead, Frank was “never registered” with “no birth certificate…to say I’m alive or dead” (Banks 10). Frank blames it on his father’s hippy past, without realising of course that he is not registered because Agnus did not wish to tie his son to a specific gender, legally required, that would upset the experiment. This in a reversal of typical medical practice, as Shaw explains, wherein it is law in Western countries, Britain included, to “register a baby as a male or female within six weeks” (Shaw 20).
In Frank’s case, the reverse of standard medical practice toward sexual ambiguity is true: a biologically normal young child, the expected and hoped for end of correcting a child born ambiguous, is instead transformed from ‘normality’ to something viewed by Frank as essentially male, but not at all by a long shot, but something in between, masculine in appearance but with a vagina. In Frank’s case, however, he is not born into this particular sexual form, nor has he played any willing part in becoming transsexual, much as any child born ‘ambiguous’ might be, and like those children, he bears the scars, literally and figuratively, of having a sexual and gendered identity forced onto them by a medical profession who does not want
something aberrant; of course, that is the irony in Angus’ Noble Lie, that out of normality he has created an ‘aberrant’.
Indeed, even the assumption from the seventies, the time during which Frank was raised, detailed by Garber, that women who act or dress like men are “not psychotic…they merely wanted to be men, which in their society was a highly reasonable, indeed healthy, desire” (Garber 194) becomes suspect in The Wasp
Factory because, well, Frank is not the most reasonable, healthy or stable; his father muses that “you should be the one in the hospital, not Eric [his brother]” (9), meaning of course the Insane Asylum. Angus creates a son out of a daughter; he unintentionally satirises the medical discipline’s desire for normality and order in the sex and gender of children, because his mangled monster making so specifically shows up the idea that gender is a construction; Frank, though he believes he is male through and through, has been built specifically, deliberately, through a scientific, social process, that, as we shall see, was almost too effective.
Ironically, Frank is himself a biological essentialist about sex and gender. Frank believes himself to be a male who“feels it in my bones, in my uncastrated genes” despite being “not a full man” (142), despite being castrated and therefore lacking the prime signifier of masculinity. Frank is not male, of course, genetically any more then he is genitalia-wise. Because Frank lacks the prime identifier of what he sees as objective male reality, a penis, and is not pleased with his body, “plump and chubby” and “not dark and mysterious” (19) as he feels he must be, he must replace it with a more rigorous scientific definition that places the onus on the very chemical bonds of his body. He is likewise angry that his injury would keep him in “an
adolescent state forever, would never let [him] grow up and be a full man” (183) and achieve the biological goal of copulation and reproduction, which despite Frank’s abhorrence of all women, “because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men” (10) is still what he sees as paramount male duty.
Frank’s obsession with what it is to be male, though it relies upon what he thinks is chromosomal fact, is undermined by the lack of male genitalia, part of the essentialist argument that a penis makes a man, and thus he obsessed with what he has been lost, what has been stolen from him.. Genes will never entirely do as visible prove of masculinity, and so he is also obsessed with, in Frank’s own words, a
“negative and negation of the fecundity only others could lay claim to” and thus “unmanned – would out-man those around” himself (242). The fact that he is a she, however, undermines even that essentialist argument, and by trying to “out-man” other men, Frank demonstrates unwittingly, until the revelation at the end of the novel, that males and manhood are, shock of shockes, heavily constructed by society.
Some of the activities that Frank partakes in are fairly typically ‘masculine’, in that they are considered those activities that can make a boy a man, or at least that make an adolescent boy an adolescent boy, the activities met with an apathetic shrug and rueful shake of the head, usually. Frank goes to bars and gets stupendously drunk, he plays video games, he swears and grabs at his crotch, and wishes eagerly
and jealously that he could urinate standing up and play games by pissing on cigarette butts in the urinal; he resents bitterly having to “sit on the toilet like a bloody woman” (14) to urinate. This being a novel more notable for its extremely black humour and gruesome violence, however, Frank participates in a twisted kind of adolescent, a dark reflection on the normal kind of romping around on the island where his family
lives considered normal for young men, as it certainly was for me. When news of his brother’s escape arrived, Frank was about to wage a War, and laments about not having had “a good War for months; the last one had been the Ordinary [plastic] Soldiers vs. the Aerosols” (23). He builds dams to hold back the sea and then relishes in their collapse and the sweeping away of tiny sand villages full of shells representing people, and he fights off bullies trying to “invade the island…with steelies and stones” (69). These details are reminiscent of any numerous of real or imagined bucolic childhoods, fighting the good fight, exploring, destroying, creating, so much so they have descended into a savage mockery of the cliche of Where the Red Fern Grow and any of a number of Hollywood paeans or rustic novel homages to childhood in the back country.
There is a manic kind of inte nsity to these activities that goes beyond just boyish fun. Frank haunts nearby rabbit warrens with a home-made sling shot, almost certainly mocking Dennis the Menace and his adventures, but ends up battling with a buck hare “a doberman of a beast…trying to tear me to shreds” (35), and ends up throttling and killing the rabbit in hand to hand combat; his revenge for the rabbit’s
assault is genocidal: the use of homemade bombs and flamethrowers against the remaining rabbits, who “took flame and blazed, running and stumbling and falling” (39). Around the island he sets up poles topped with the tiny desiccated heads of animals, kept as a kind of “early warning system and deterrent rolled into one; infected, potent things which looked out from the island” (5), invested with a mythical, mystical energy, and specious reasoning; in order to fill his head quota, he kills all manner of animals with regularity and abandon, carrying around a bag of seagull and mouse heads as trophies. The head of Old Saul is kept in an
underground bunker as a totemic figure of great power to Frank, and is so obviously an attempt on Banks part to be psychological, a distressed way for Frank to deal, badly (how else does one deal with the loss of it?) with the ca stration myth of his life.
Most disturbingly of all, Frank describes in great detail his three successful murders, all before he is ten years of age: his cousins Blyth and Esmerelda and his sibling Paul, summarised and celebrated to a certain extent in one of the book’s most famous passages:
Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through. (49)
Murder is laid out as part of Frank’s growing up experience, as a particularly difficult and challenging activity taken with the deadly seriousness of a young boy, and with a preternatural cleverness in all three cases. The murders are something, though, as necessary to his growth into adolescence and truncated manhood as the slingshot or the building games. Frank blames this on biological essentialism, again, as violence is “what men are really for. Both sexes can do one thing especially well: women can give birth and men can kill. Men…are the harder sex. We strike out, push and take” (155).
Frank’s extreme use of violence and murder is a particularly grotesque, and thus not a little darkly humourous, exaggeration of ‘what boys tend to get up to naturally’, and indeed, as critic Bertold Schoene-Harwood points out, though “Frank does undoubtably go to far, his actions are never deviant or subversive but follow from the normative guidelines of masculine propriety” 136). Although Frank locates his violent tendencies in the biological nature of males, as a female raised as a man, his ironically exaggerated violent tendencies are an overdoing and overacting of the ‘normal’ processes and activities that all boys go through as they grow up, overactedto overcompensate for the lack engendered by a false castration, or his ‘real’ sex, that prohibits Frank from being a true man. His murders are partly another way, to him, of fitting in, of accepting that pernicious mythology of male identity and socialisation, that somehow, intrinsically, maleness is aggressiveness.
Frank’s ideal male is his elder brother, Eric, the only sibling or relative he truly loves and respects, who is tragically driven mad by a particularly ghastly sight while working as a nurse during his medical studies. Frank admires most of all Eric’s adventurous spirit, that led him to London for university; as Frank relates, Eric’s “wandering urge consumed him, as it does any real man” (182) and he voyaged out into the world, something any real man would want, but denied to Frank because he is not a real man. Frank takes a “vicarious feeling of manly satisfaction in the brilliant performance of Eric in the outside world”, and as compensation for his ‘disability’ and his professed inability to leave the island for any length of time, turns inward, using his magical talismans of Old Saul’s skull and his divining instrument, the Wasp Factory, to become “unchallenged lord of the island and the lands about it” (183).
And yet Eric goes mad, and the profoundly sad, disappointed and disgusted Frank blames it upon some inner biological weakness of his brother, a “fundamental flaw that a real man should not have had” caused by an inner sensitivity, a chink in the armour of maleness, which had led him into medicine and nursing. Frank believes that real man should be able to handle horror and terror with aplomb, but that women, “I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands – of films and television programmes, cannot withstand really major things happening to them”; Eric’s weakness is that he was “the victim of a self with just a little too much of the woman in it” (195). Frank is also digusted Angus let Eric wear dresses as a child, which as the ending reveals is a suppressed memory of Frank himself as a child.
Despite his ostensible belief in biological determinism and the innateness with sex of gender qualities, Frank still ends up partly blaming a socially constructed artifice of gender, clothing, for his brother’s fatal ‘weakness’. Of course, once the ending is known, Frank’s critique is, like so much else in this book, heavily ironic, but what is most interesting is the respect Eric, with his madness, accrues from Frank. Eric burns
dogs, clearly related symbolically to Frank’s own castration, doesn’t sleep, gibbers and capers and eats maggots, and is able to escape several times from his incarceration through guile and cunning; because of this, Frank cannot help but admire the “total commitment about which only the profoundly mad are cautiously capable of, and the most ferocious soldiers and most aggressive sportsmen able to
emulate for a while” (168).
Thus, through madness is masculinity redeemed.