AFTER THE TRAGIC LOSS of his parents, an unnamed child, who doubles as the narrator of the story, arrives at an orphanage that will forever alter his perception of reality, community, and, most importantly, himself. In his sixth novel, Colin Winnette follows the curious adventures of a child who neither knows the world he lives in nor how to navigate the challenges that will help him determine the answers to his questions. Oscillating between murder mystery, psychological thriller, and coming-of-age novel, The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a careful, yet playful, study of the power plays inevitable among children, and between children and adults, by way of an exploration of group dynamics and science fiction. Winnette’s work capitalizes on the spectral aspect of being alive to discover a newfound meaning for self-actualization. “The game had fallen habitually into place, as a matter of course, and I wasn’t yet part of their world.”
When the narrator arrives at the orphanage, he is greeted by a cryptic Headmaster who, very early on in their encounter, makes the child understand that he is not privileged, that he does not deserve the best quality of life, and that he must work hard to get ahead. Naturally, this is the kind of language one would expect to hear from a headmaster; by virtue of his position, he must create a redoubtable system of fear to impose his authority over his student body. But upon entering the orphanage, the first encounter and conversation the child has with the Headmaster sets the unfriendly tone that will fester in and riddle the novel. So begins the child’s experience with the group: “I thought about this and realized that at that point in my life I was loyal to no one and felt pride for nothing. It was something I hoped to change.”
The child often has lucid moments like the above, where he is able to look at his situation and provide a sharp analysis of cause and effect. When the child expresses his lack of loyalty, and, as a result, his unflinching independence, it’s clear that he is in the process of creating a protective wall around himself. He stabilizes himself in his beliefs in order to avoid the hardship of having to fit in. However, his self-assurance quickly plummets when Fry — one of his peers — decides to tease him in class. Poking the back of the child’s ear with the end of a blade, Fry causes a scene in the classroom, ultimately leading the child to the Headmaster’s office. Shortly after, Fry disappears.
“Rat!” and “Snitch!” are only a couple of the names the boys call our unnamed child upon realizing Fry’s disappearance. From there, everything unravels into complete chaos. Unclear why Fry has suddenly left the premises, the child is forced to endure constant bullying and must fight to be believed. At this point in the story, the child has lost credibility, and no one seems to want to have anything to do with him. In response to this second level of ostracism, the child’s language changes quite dramatically: “I ground my nails into my palms, watching their faces and looking for signs of guilt. Who was watching me? Who was not watching me? I looked for anything at all, keeping to myself and trying to go unnoticed, until I was pushed from behind and fell face-first into the water.”
If he started out self-confident enough to proclaim allegiance or loyalty to no one, the child has now fallen deep into the trope of acceptance. Winnette effectively paints the picture of the preteen experience: an endless stream of attempts to fit into a group that innately wants to reject you and arbitrarily demean you. Interestingly, Winnette combines this trope with some critical theory. If the child is suddenly a threat to the others, and if no one believes a word he says or wants anything to do with him, then what does it mean for him to be the sole narrator of the story? The book exclusively follows the child’s experience and perspective in strict first-person perspective. Never does it veer into the minds of other characters, thus making the narrative one-sided. And the child is at risk of losing credibility not only in the eyes of his fellow orphans, but also in those of his readers. With this in mind, the child’s statements take on a different dimension: “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?”
The anger the child feels toward an unanswering despotic author is exacerbated when an unexpected body surfaces and another one drops dead. Death almost immediately invades the text, like fog projected from a machine, surreptitiously and calculated, with no escape on the horizon. Desperately trying to alert the others of the imminent threat, the child tries everything in his power to connect with someone, but to no avail. Only fellow orphan Nick will listen and ultimately tell him about the Ghost that haunts the orphanage: every year five individuals die, no less, no more.
The apparition of the Ghost causes complete mayhem within the orphanage, though the mayhem is solely mediated through the eyes of the child, who, as it’s been made clear, is not welcome among the others. The solitary experience of collective mayhem brings into question the role of the Ghost. Canonically, the Ghost, as we’ve seen in Hamlet, represents the thin line between reality and the imagination. However, which side we are on in The Job of the Wasp is unclear. Winnette successfully blends reality with fiction and, in so doing, forces the readers to question not just the narrator’s authenticity but also the plot’s truth. Is the reality in this novel what it is written as? Put differently, has the despotic author tricked us into believing in a world that does not exist within its own fictional parameters?
“I believe in the importance of staying open to possibilities that exist outside the realm of reason, though it more often than not results in our believing exclusively in what we hope for ourselves. For that reason, I also believe in the need to thoroughly and honestly examine one’s beliefs and the true nature of oneself.”
This uncertainty is doubled by the way in which names function in the book. The children whose names are never pronounced are those that have the most difficulty assimilating to the group. However, those with a defined name occupy significant roles in the community, like Ralph and Jack did in Lord of the Flies. They are the leaders, the apologists, and, ultimately, the ones that the other children will follow. But Winnette has clear intentions in leaving his protagonist unnamed. Without a name, the child can easily move between reality and fiction and perceive situations in a more poetic, ineffable manner. For instance, when destroying a wasp nest, he notes:
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. […] Their homes were objects built, not things inherited. We orphans weren’t so lucky. If our nest was knocked down […], where was there left for us to go?
The poetics of witnessing give the text a voyeuristic look, like readers are watching the story unfold from the outside looking into an isolated, atemporal, eerie space: “[F]or a strange moment it did feel like we were alone together on the edge of the world, and that I was somehow both vulnerable and entirely safe,” says the narrator. Winnette’s book is in fact somewhere on the edge of the world, away from what is familiarly human. As the children hang out on this edge, alone, haunted, and threatened, the events that punctuate their lives — however unlikely or long-winded some of them might be — puncture the reader at her core. It’s the unheimlich, the uncanny nature of Winnette’s story that makes each narrative occurrence visceral and creepily familiar. Against all odds, we end up believing the child, and we might be the only ones. “I felt I could see all of humanity in that progression of faces. I wept too, and for all to see.”
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.