In his last book, 2015’s Haints Stay, Colin Winnette magnificently skewered the Western genre with splashes of violence, drunkenness and gender confusion. Oh, and ghosts too. His latest novel explodes the Gothic horror genre and the coming- of-age novel, with just as much skill and black humour. Oh, and it has ghosts too.
Throughout the book we are in the head of our narrator, an un-named, overweight kid who turns up at a spooky boys’ home, a bare-bones orphanage run by a weary, elderly Headmaster.
The Headmaster quickly dispels any illusions the narrator may have. “This is not a school,” he says. “It is a temporary holding facility with mandatory educational elements. You will be held until you are far enough along to care for yourself. No longer, no less. You will work, along with the other boys, to earn your room and board. You will be provided for, but you will not be comforted. Even if I wanted to comfort you, we have been forced by the economic realities of our situation to live simply.”
So, it’s clear that the orphanage (or “the facility” as it is often called) is a sort of liminal state, a kind of purgatory not unlike the transitional world of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
The narrator claims to have no desire to fit in with the other boys and they are clandestinely hostile to him. The narrator can’t seem to keep the other orphans straight in his mind, forgetting names and faces and not recognizing boys he has already spent some time with.
The narrator is, of course, a supremely unreliable narrator. Soon, a series of bizarre instances begin to surround him: the Headmaster passes him a cryptic note imploring him to confess, there are strange voices outside his window, an ominous storm rages and people start to die in rapid order.
The narrator suspects the Headmaster of carrying out the murders, the other boys suspect a murderous ghost on its annual visit. Some boys wonder if they carried out the murders themselves and the reader is certainly led to wonder if the narrator is himself guilty.
Winnette generally tells the story with admirable concision and matter-of-factness, keeping the reader always slightly off kilter. This works to muddy the perceptions of reality and keeps the reader constantly questioning the narrator’s usually self-serving narrative.
“We’ve all witnessed something out of the ordinary at one point or another,” the narrator muses, “but it is difficult to distinguish between the elements that truly compromise our shared experience here and the extra-real moments we experience only as individuals. Where is the line between the world we share and the worlds that exist exclusively for each of us?”
On one level the novel acts as a Lord-of-the- Flies-like parable about the cruelty, cliquishness and cowardice of adolescent boys thrown together. “I spent recess on the edge of the yard, watching the other boys chase one another and slap each other in the testicles” the narrator tells us. “Civilized boys are barbaric in their play, and, to me, every single one of them seemed murderous.”
On a different level it’s a Kafkaesque novel about alienation in an inscrutably hostile world. The narrator decides that he can’t fight the Headmaster and simply resigns himself to his fate. “Was there any potential use to the suffering I’d endured, or was there nothing left for me to do but reluctantly live out the final stages of a nefarious plot crafted by a homicidal despot who’d outsmarted me?”
It is the plight of the wasps whose nests he sees destroyed one night that convinces the narrator to start fighting back. This is the “job of the wasp” of the title.
“I felt pity for them. There was no home left for them to reach. No place to which they could return. They would have to start fresh or die trying. But at least they had that option…We orphans weren’t so lucky. If our nest was knocked down by a murderous Headmaster, where was there left for us to go? Who would care for us? Who would take us in?… The other boys had left me, and though some wasps returned to the busy work of piecing together what was left of their lives right away, others abandoned hope momentarily to this warm lump on the gazebo floor, as a boy might collapse on a hillside under the baking sun or bang his head against a concrete wall.”
The novel has some truly creepy scenes, some humorously macabre scenes and some scenes that are just plain weird. There is a constant motif of vegetal decay and rot throughout the book which culminates in an ending that is scary but not exactly crystal clear in wrapping up some of the mysteries. Maybe, there really is no explanation appropriate enough for this engrossing tale and its strange little world.
The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette, 208pp., Soft Skull Press