Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iain Banks's "Complicity"

This is a novel I picked up when I was in Edinburgh in July. I've always liked Banks, who's part of a wave of Scottish and UK writers who are verbally more headlong, inventive, and crazy than their more decorous American counterparts (e.g. the eloquent but oddly confined Jonathan Franzen). Complicity came out in 1993, and tells the story of a group of college friends who came of age under Margaret Thatcher: by the time the book's action begins, they are in their mid-30s. The main character, Cameron, is a slightly crank-addicted whisky swilling investigative journalist who's trying to quit smoking and not O.D. on Intel 486-era video games. He works for a newspaper much like The Scotsman, headquartered in Edinburgh. He's having a hot and twisted, long-term affair with a college friend's wife. His closest childhood friend, Andy, joined the military, served in the Falklands War against Argentina (HMS Antelope sinks in the picture), became a start-up millionaire back in London, but has sold everything and is living as a recluse in a deteriorating former hotel in the Western Highlands.

The book is a thriller: Cameron the journalist is getting calls from a military "Deep Throat" source who claims that a series of suicides in the intelligence community were actually murders. He is getting burnt out by various wild-goose chases and goes to visit Andy in his gloomy, cavernous ruin somewhere near the Isle of Skye. The chapters describing his various sex, drugs, and reporter escapes are interspersed with scenes in which an unknown assailant kills one wealthy creep after another, though in a couple of cases stopping with mere humiliation. The killer's chapters are told in the second person: the book's first sentence is, "You hear the car after an hour and a half."

This continues through the first half of the novel. Around that time, the cops come to question Cameron in their investigation of the murders. The reason: a while earlier, Cameron had written a guest column in a magazine in which he named several right-wing powerbrokers who deserved worse than they got. The column was called "Radical Equaliser." And every name Cameron mentioned had been either beaten or killed.

Cameron is superpissed at Thatcherite parasites - speculators, arms dealers, the billionaire pillagers of the villagers. His column read like this (the cop quoting it to back to him in the police station):
Perhaps somebody should make one of these programmes for those of us who're fed up seeing the usual suspects get theirs (corrupt landlords, substance-abusing youths and of course the inevitable drug dealers; reprehensible villains all, no doubt, but too predictable, too safe) and introduce a Real Avenger, a Radical Equaliser who'll take on some alternative hate-figures. Somebody who'll give people like James Anderton, Judge Jamieson and Sir Toby Bissett a taste of their own medicine, somebody who'll attack the asset strippers and the arms smugglers (ministers of HMG included - listening, Mr Persimmon?); somebody who'll stand up against the tycoons who put their profits before others' safety, like Sir Rufus Carter; somebody who'll punish the captains of industry who parrot that time-honoured phrase about their shareholders' interests coming first as they close down profitable factories and throw thousands out of work, just so that their already comfortable investors in the Home Countries and Marbella can make that little bit extra that always comes in so handy darling when you're thinking about trading up to a 7-series Beamer or moving the gin-palace to a more expensive mooring.
Did Cameron actually kill them? Unlikely, of course: he does enough speed to do it, but he lives too much in his head. Someone who knows him well did do these crimes. If it's not actually Cameron himself, then who? As his relations with the cops take a sudden bad turn, Cameron has to solve their cases for them, which he does in a long series of flashbacks that take him back to his childhood, other parts of Scotland, other conversations about the undercurrents of Thatcherite England.

It would be interesting to know whether Banks saw the unknown Canadian masterpiece Clearcut (1991), which came out two years before his novel. In that film, a progressive city lawyer is offered a chance to move from complaint to direct action, and the film is brilliantly ruthless in showing just how unwilling he is to turn words to deeds. A pairing is set up between a main figure who thinks, writes, and rages, and an alterego who acts on the thought, and who may or may not be the main figure himself.

Both film and book are great at showing what the deeds actually look like. They look like what we now call terrorism. They create terror. And, unlike newspaper columns, terrorism makes an immediate difference.

Here's the voice of the (affluent, well-educated, Scottish) terrorist:
You know the evidence: the world already produces . . . we already produce enough food to feed every starving child on earth, but still a third of them go to bed hungry. And it is our fault; that starvation's caused by debtor countries having to abandon their indigenous foods to grow cash crops to keep the World Bank or the IMF or Barclays happy, or to service debts run up by murdering thugs who slaughtered their way into power and slaughtered their way through it, usually with the connivance and help of one part of the developed world or another.

We could have something perfectly decent right now - not Utopia, but a fairly equitable world state where there was no malnutrition and no terminal diarrhoea and nobody died of silly wee diseases like measles - if we all really wanted it, if we weren't so greedy, so racist, so bigoted, so basically self-centered. Fucking hell, even that self-centeredness is farcically stupid; we know smoking kills people but we still let the drug barons of BAT and Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco kill their millions and make their billions; smart, educated people like us know smoking kills but we still smoke ourselves!

. . . The point is, there's no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others.
Complicity asks the classic Noir questions:

  • Are you OK with the law of the Strong ruling and destroying the Weak?
  • If not, what are you going to do?
  • Will anything you do work against the Strong - anything except violence?
Or in Clearcut's formulation: you dreamed anger, and your anger is real.

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