The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984): Prolific Banks’s first published novel is a doozy — a first-person narrative with an obsessive-compulsive, sociopathic 16-year-old Scot as the narrator. Our narrator Frank lives with his dotty, obsessive-compulsive father on a small island connected by a landbridge to the nearby mainland. He doesn’t go to school and, indeed, believes that he doesn’t legally exist as his father has told him that no record of his birth was ever filed with the government.
Frank enjoys making explosives, killing animals, making fetishes out of the dead bodies of animals, building dams, getting drunk with a friendly dwarf and, oh, killing relatives — three of them, to be exact, from when he was six to when he was about ten. He’s a barrel of laughs, our Frank, though his somewhat demented consciousness can sometimes make a reader doubt the veracity of, well, everything in the novel — the means of Frank’s murders are so odd and so baroque and, in one case, so reliant on chance that one really does wonder just how reliable a narrator Frank really is.
Oh, and Frank’s external genitalia were torn off in a violent childhood incident. Truly this was the feel-good novel of 1984.
Frank and his father await the return of Frank’s institutionalized older brother, who went mad years ago and now, having escaped the institution, is moving inexorably towards home, leaving a trail of fires and dead, partially devoured dogs along the way. Frank consults the oracular rituals that he himself has invented (including the eponymous device, which we don’t actually see in operation until very late in the novel), sets up defenses both psychic and real, and repeatedly tries to gain entrance to his father’s locked office, in which he believes the answers to all the mysteries of his life reside.
Banks’s troubled yet oddly sympathetic teenaged narrator evokes similar highly intelligent, ultra-violent narrators, perhaps most notably John Gardner’s Grendel in Grendel and Anthony Burgess’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange (though ‘Frank’ could also be an homage to the equally screwed-up, equally high-intelligence creation of Victor Frankenstein, the original first-person narrative of misanthropic creations and creators).
The violence and graphic horror are shocking, enough so that I ended up musing that this is the novel the kids of South Park thought they’d be getting when they were instead handed the “shocking and controversial” A Catcher in the Rye, which subsequently bored the kids so much that they concocted their own shocking novel, The Tale of Scrotty McBoogerballs. Highly recommended, but certainly not for the squeamish.