The Job of the Wasp
by Colin Winnette
Published 2018 by Soft Skull Press
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1593766801
By Noah Sanders
Colin Winnette’s novel The Job of the Wasp is, to some degree a ghost story. It is also a locked-room murder mystery and a gothic horror story all entangled within the dimly lit hallways of a purgatory like orphanage. It’s narrator, an ill-fitted boy—lacking both a name and a past—arrives at his new home, seeking nothing but some form of acceptance, but instead is pulled into a madcap hall of mirrors where no one—the children or the ominously vague staff—are to be trusted. Yet all of this—the hunt for an elusive ghost, the murders (which there are many), the pounding storm and the dank, often dour atmosphere—are a mere smoke screen for a story about the elusive nature of acceptance, what we will do, what we might even give up to feel a part of something bigger. And though Winnette—an able veteran of literary genre writing—handles the snarl of spirits and death with aplomb, the reader’s urge to unravel the relatively superfluous “mystery” distracts from the pulsing heart at the novel’s core.
The orphanage in which Winnette thrusts his nameless narrator is a transitional place, where parentless children and troubled kids are sent to be bettered for reemergence into society. Through awkward conversation and the blandly dire monologues of an anxiety-ridden headmaster, our narrator learns that every so often, when the number of students exceeds the capacity of the space, people start dying. His appearance pushes the number into the red and quite quickly, murder is afoot. Accusations are thrown, but many believe it to be the work of a ghost amongst them, costumed as a student, but killing in secret. The narrator—cold and distant, his every conversation a tool to discover more—discovers a buried body and commits a murder of his own and then, his own life hanging in the grips, must do what he can to discover the culprit.
The Job of the Wasp reads fast and sometimes funny, but there is a sense of longing in the character of the narrator, a perpetual maladroit coming to reckon with his own need of fitting in. The other boys (or are they ghosts) shun him at first, turn against him later and finally turn towards a sort of youthful mob justice once they’ve narrowed their suspicions. “Young boys are barbarians,” the narrator says, and he is the outsider amongst them, navigating this suddenly dangerous world as well as the slings and arrows of teenagers confined to a small space. “Young boys are barbarians,” Winnette writes, and The Job of the Wasp portrays them as such, escalating from teasing to attempted murder at the merest suggestion.
Winnette’s narrator is a fascinating, almost otherworldly perspective on the unfolding events, trying as he might to find allies of any yolk, even as those he gets “close” to continue to turn up dead. If he is surrounded by the erratic energy of young men, he is entirely separate from it as well. If the ghost could be anyone, then our narrator could be as well, and Winnette doesn’t shy from portraying him as askew from the other orphans. At times the reader wonders, “Is this narrator even a child? Is he even human?” “This was the very essence of innocence: a willingness to believe,” the narrator speaks at one point describing his fellow students, his perspective so alien, so above the simpler minded objectives of those around him.
And because of the genre(s), reading The Job of the Wasp, becomes an exercise in trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not, who’s a ghost and who’s not, who at the very least can be trusted. Which is unfortunate, because the journey of the narrator, how his attempt to insinuate himself into an established group for survival blossoms into something bigger, is a smaller, more poignant story smothered beneath the, albeit pitch perfect, atmosphere and mystery Winnette has devised.
This becomes clearest in the end of the book, when questions are answered (kind of) and the villain of the piece (maybe) is finally revealed and the strange world Winnette has crafted becomes even stranger. Because even as Winnette unboxes the mystery, lays all his cards on the table, it is the small shift in the narrator’s mind set the reader is drawn towards. The answers Winnette gives will not satisfy those thirsty for a neatly tied up conclusion. They are vague and as mysterious as everything that’s led up to them, and though this is clearly the author’s intention, it only adds to the distracting nature of the book’s genre elements. Even as the narrator begins to understand his place in the school, and perhaps in the world, one’s mind is drawn away from the emotional revelations and towards deciphering the cryptic explanations being laid on the table. And though Winnette has done a fine job crafting his bizarre, haunting world, in doing so he’s pulled the focus on what really matters: the fascinating interior dissection of his narrator.