“What shall we put the cover?”
“Yeah. Big ones. Really big ones. Make sure they loom.”
“Loom. Massive fuck off looming fucking guns. And maybe one little one. And a chair.”
Although in fairness it’s all completely relevant to the story, and the more recent edition is a little more tastefully done. That story is, you’ll be pleased to hear, far more subtly and delicately drawn. It’s very, very good indeed, though on rereading I found that I could recall almost nothing about it and I can’t decide how to interpret that. Great literature should stick in the mind, I think, so it kind of falls down on that.
On the upside, it did mean like this was reading it for the first time, and that’s not to be sneezed at. A warrior for hire tempted out of retirement for one last mission and, as we’re finding with the Culture, reiterating the fact that one of the central conundrums with a utopia is just how far it’s necessary to push yourself in order to find meaning, and as ever we find that meaning on the fringes. This one carries more weight though as it’s a far more personal quest, and for all that the structure is very cleverly done (two alternating plot strands, one moving forward, the other reversing through the chronology) it’s that individual drive for meaning and redemption that really propells this book.
As ever I shall pause here to link to two far smarter and wiser people’s thoughts on this book, one with spoilers, one without, and also use this as a point to say I’ll be straying slightly into spoiler territory from here on in.
Because there’s a twist, you see. A big old twisty twist of the sort that shoved Banks to stardom in his very first novel whereby the person you’ve just spent the last five hours of your life with turns out not to be that person at all. I’d remembered that much, at least, and that does make rereading it a slightly different experience. I pegged the Twist (note the portentous capping up) to The Sixth Sense before I even saw it, and if you think claiming that here makes be sound like an insufferable know-it-all then imagine how my then girlfriend felt, having to sit through the entire movie with me saying stuff like, “Look, she’s not talking to him,” or “See? See! No one is making eye contact with him because THEY CAN’T SEE HIM.”
That is, for better or worse (mainly worse, let’s be honest) the kind of narrative nitpicking in which I like to indulge, and so going back through Use of Weapons was an exercise in seeing the occasions when names were dropped and the protagonist is only referred to as “he”, or the wonderfully ambiguous sentence towards the end of the penultimate proper chapter claiming that either Elethiomel’s break out or the surgeons battling to save Zakalwe’s life “almost succeeded”. While this is clearly down largely to the introverted five-year-old remnants of my psyche – the parts that would still rather spend a sunny afternoon inside taking apart a music-box to see how it works rather than play outside with the other children my mother continues to insist are my ‘friends’ – I’m not sure the book itself doesn’t bear at least part of the blame. If you’re going to get clever-clever with the structure than you’re going to attract a certain type of reader and encourage them to get clever-clever themselves. If you’re going to knit together so many fragments then that’s just going to encourage some people to pick at the seams. Perhaps.
But of course Banks never drops the ball. Specificity and narrative vagueness are expertly deployed and the misdirection is expertly achieved. Except for the fact that in the final analysis, the big reveal doesn’t quite ring true, at least for me, emotionally. Sure the intellectual, game playing (ha!) parts of me can understand and appreciate how the trick was performed – all the boxes get ticked for character motivation and plot development – but somehow it all feels like just that: a box ticking exercise. Somehow, somehow, the emotions just don’t quite line up and that, I am fully prepared to concede, may be entirely down to me.