I just finished reading Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. It is a disturbing novel on many levels; even the back-cover comments warn against reading it. The reason for mentioning it on this blog, however, is that it is so full of religious ideas that it would be a shame not to address them here. I won’t put in any spoilers for those who might, even with adequate warning, want to read the book.
The wasp factory of the title is a divination device. The narrator, Frank, does not believe in God because of the unfairness and cruelty in the world, although he is also a frequent perpetrator of cruelty. As he seeks revenge on animals other children, Frank views their suffering as a form of punishment from the God he disbelieves. At one point, after his brother Paul dies, Frank compares him to his old dog Saul, also unfortunately deceased. At this point he reveals, “Paul, of course, was Saul.” Death is the Damascus Road experience in this world devoid of a deity, but one where death is considered far more certain than life. At one point Frank declares the sea to be a mythological enemy, a point of view shared by the Bible and many ancient societies.
Frank is a neurotically ritual-bound individual. No matter how gruesome, his tasks are part of an elaborate system that must be repeated in order to maintain its efficacy. At one stage Frank declares, “this is like intellectuals in a country sneering at religion while not being able to deny the effect it has on the mass of people.” This statement is more insightful than it first appears – it is the dilemma of many who attempt to understand religion who are considered a luxury not to be afforded by society. Frank is a paradigm: people are religious, even in heterodox belief systems. The Religious Right has understood this for decades: talk religious talk and they’ll vote for you. Most people have no way of checking out what form this religion might take. It makes me almost as nervous as The Wasp Factory itself.