notgettingenough 's Reviews > Complicity

Complicity by Iain Banks
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's review
Apr 16, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: modern-lit

Sex and violence says Manny. An inferior anti-Thatcherite fantasy says Paul.

And I say….

It is about hopes and disappointments, unrequited love, bravery and cowardice. Technically, it’s a quintessentially modern English novel. There are two stories travelling at once. Neither of them is told chronologically – heaven forbid we should start at the beginning and end at the end, too passe. We do indeed have exposed sex, unexpurgated violence and a Thatcherite setting. But as well as this:

‘…because I had a quick, quiet wank earlier – don’t come too quickly’

we have this:

Summer in Strathspeld: the first really hot day that year, air warm and thick with the coconut smell of gorse – swatched richly yellow on the hills – and the sweet sharpness of pine resin, lying dropleted on the rough trunks in thick translucent bubbles. Insects buzzed and butterflies filled the glades with silent flashes of colour; in the fields the corncrake stooped and zoomed, its strange, percussive call stuttering through the scent-laden air.

Lovely prose.

We have Cameron, our doomed hero, who freezes whenever he shouldn’t, runs when he should stand and fight; Cameron who dreams every night of what he sees as his failings and yet, horrific as they are, he doesn’t face the one that hurts him most. The one where he finally gets sent to the Middle East to be a real reporter and yet again he freezes. He is completely unable to tell his readers what he sees.

Ah. But he does tell us, not knowing we are there, I suppose.

Oh God help me here on the island of the dead with the crise of the tormented, here with the angel of death and the acrid stench of excrement and carrion taking me back in the darkness and the pale fawn light to the place I never wanted to go back to, the man-made earthly black hell and the human scrapyard kilometres long. Here down amongst the dead men, midst-ways with the torn-souled and the wild, inhuman screams; here with the ferryman, the boatman, my eyes covered and my brains scrambled, here with this prince of death, this prophet of reprisal, this jealous, vengeful, unforgiving son of our bastard commonwealth of greed; help me help me help me…


I can hear the dead men, hear their flayed souls, wailing on the wind to no ear save mine and no understanding at all. The view behind my eyelids goes from pink to red and then purple into black, and is suffused with a rumblin shift into a terrible, tearing roaring noise, shaking the ground, filling the air, pounding my bones, dark going dark, black stinking hell o mum o dad o no no please don’t take me back there


And I’m there, in the one place I’ve hidden from myself’ not that cold day by the hole in the ice or the other day in the sunlit woods near the hole in the hill – days deniable because I was then not yet the me I have become – but just eighteen months ago; the time of my failure and my simple, shaming incapacity to reap and work the obvious power of what I was observing; the place that exposed my incompetence, my hopeless inability to witness.

Because I was there, I was part of it, just a year and a half ago, after months and months of badgering and cajoling and entreating Sir Andrew he finally let me go when the deadline was up and the trucks and tracks and tanks were about to roll I got my wish, I got to go, I was given the chance to do my stuff and show what I was made of, to be a genuine front-line journalist, a rootin-tootin-tokin-tipplin God-bijayziz gonzo war correspondent, bringing the blessed Saint Hunter’s manic subjectivity to the ultimate in scarifying human edge-work: modern warfare.

And forgetting the fact the drinks were few and far between and that the whole media-managed event was so unsportingly one-sided and mostly happened far away from any journos, tendance gonzoid or not, when it came to it – and it did come to it, it was put right there in front of me practically screaming at me to fucking write something - I couldn’t do it; couldn’t hack it as a hack; I just stood there, awestruck, horrorstruck, abosrbing the ghastly force of it with my inadequate and unprepared private humanity, not my public professional persona, not my skill, not the face I had laboured to prepare to face the sea of faces that is the world.

And so I was humbled, scaled, down-sized.

I stood on the sunless desert, beneath a sky black from horizon to horizon, a rolling, heavy sulphurous sky made solid and soiled, packed with the thick, stinking effluence squeezed erupting from the earth’s invaded bowels, and in that darkness at noon, that planned, deliberated disaster, with the bale-fire light of the burning wells flickering in the distance with a dirty, guttering flame, I was reduced to a numb, dumb realisation of our unboundedly resourceful talent for bloody hatred and mad waste, but stripped of the means to describe and present that knowledge.

I crouched on the tar-black grainy stickiness of the plundered sands, within scorching distance of one of the wrecked wells, watching the way the fractured black metal stub in the centre of the crater gouted a compressed froth of oil and gas in quick, shuddering, instantly dispersing bursts and bubbles of brown-black spray into the furious, screaming tower of flame above; a filthy hundred-metre Cypress of fire, shaking the ground like a never-ending earthquake and bellowing madly in a strident jet-engine shriek, shuddering my bones and jarring my teeth and making my eyes tremble in their sockets.

My body shook, my ears rang, my eyes burned, my throat was raw with the acid-bitter stench of the evaporating crude, but it was as though the very ferocity of the experience unmanned me, unmade me and rendered me incapable of telling it.

Later, on the Basra road, by that vast linearity of carnage, a single strip of junk-yard destruction stretching – again – from horizon to horizon on the flat fun face of that dusty land, I wandered the scorched, perforated wreckage of the cars and vans and trucks and buses left after the A10s and the Cobras and the TOWs and the miniguns and the thirty-mill cannons and the cluster munitions had had their unrestrained way with their unarmoured prey, and saw the brown-burned metal, the few bubbled patches of sooty paint, the torn chassis and ripped-open cabs of those Hondas and Nissans and Leylands and Macks, their tyres slack and flattened or quite gone, burned to the steel cording inside, I surveyed the spattered shrapnel of that communal ruin rayed out across the sands, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be caught here, beaten, retreating, running desperately away in those thin-skinned civilian vehicles while the missles and shells rained in like supersonic sleep and the belching fire burst billowing everywhere around. I tried, too, to imagine how many people had died here, how many shredded, cindered bodies and bits of bodies had been bagged and removed and buried by the clean-up squads before we were allowed to see this icon of that long day’s slaughter.

But this is not what he writes. He files stories about war is hell and peace too if you are female in this part of the world. He smokes good dope. He goes home. And this is the failure that haunts him so much he can’t even dream of it.

Rollicking good yarn of sex and violence, a small political education for those who don’t know Thatcherite England; but also this other thing, a story of a little boy who happens to have forced upon him by circumstance terrible decisions to make, decisions adults shouldn’t have to make, let alone children, and what it does to his life. The violence and sex really don’t matter, you can skip them and you are left with the guts of a moving tale about complicity and its impact on our hero.

I have to say, it took me as long to read the first five pages as the rest of the book put together. I trapped myself, plane trip to see my mother, it was either the other 307 pages or the airplane what to do in an emergency card. I’m very pleased to report Complicity won.
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Reading Progress

04/16/2010 page 3
02/24/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Manny Well, my review was intended to say roughly the same thing, but you said it better.

notgettingenough Hamlet and the Duchess (something for Disney?) Succinct, apt, better. So unfair of me to have picked out sex and violence!

message 3: by Alan (new)

Alan I've never read him, put off by reports about The Wasp Factory: maybe I should start with this one...

notgettingenough Alan wrote: "I've never read him, put off by reports about The Wasp Factory: maybe I should start with this one..."

Alan, I really rather liked the Wasp Factory. I think it's a pity if you've heard about it before reading it....Best to be surprised by it. But, having said that, I read it 15 years ago and it took me this long to pick up another by him. So I guess that isn't the best advertisement in the world for a book.

message 5: by Alan (new)

Alan My wife said it read like someone trying to shock and not able to write very well. My daughter quite liked it though i think..

notgettingenough Alan wrote: "My wife said it read like someone trying to shock and not able to write very well. My daughter quite liked it though i think.."

Perhaps she's right. I'm sure I'm less tolerant now than I was when I read it.

I have a friend I go to the theatre with a lot, she's about 70, and she so plaintively complained to me after one show 'Why isn't everything wonderful like it used to be?' When you were little and you loved all books and every theatre experience was a fantastic dream. Yes, why....

message 7: by Alan (new)

Alan Yes why?

notgettingenough Alan wrote: "Yes why?"

Well, I guess at some point you've seen everything before, mayb that's partly it. You are no longer an eager sponge. You understand more about human nature than you did, and even though you probably learned it from books and theatre, nonetheless, it detracts from them. That would be partly it...

message 9: by Alan (new)

Alan I still love many books, just not all..

notgettingenough Alan wrote: "I still love many books, just not all.."

Of course. We wouldn't be here if we didn't love many of them. And just because something is flawed or one may be critical of it in a more - mature? - way, does not mean we don't love it too.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Nothing to add to this except hello you guys - prediction : England vs Germany, 1-1 followed by penalty shoot-out in which to everyone's amazement England wins. It'll happen in two hours. I'll be glad when it's all over and England have been thrashed by Argentina.

Manny Paul, you need to replace your Tarot deck.

message 13: by Megha (new)

Megha Paul wrote: " which to everyone's amazement England wins. It'll happen in two hours. I'll be g..."

I don't see any such surprise coming up.

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant I may have been just a smidgeon over optimistic. Profoundly glad I'm not a real football fan.

notgettingenough Paul wrote: "I may have been just a smidgeon over optimistic. Profoundly glad I'm not a real football fan."

Germany broke my heart. I watched in in Manchester, a rare opportunity for me for me to see Australia in a World Cup at a civilised hour - usually it is 4am - and they mashed us just like they mashed you. And there I was hoping you would inflict revenge. What's the point of being head of the Commonwealth if you don't help us out? I mean, we've come to your aid against Germany more than once...

message 16: by Alan (new)

Alan we were crap. I'm depressed

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