On "Use of Weapons"

Posted by Jack on 2015-02-02 at 22:37
Tagged: books

I have been positively binging on Iain M. Banks' Culture series. I actually wrote about Consider Phlebas, the first book in the series, a few months ago. Since then, I read The Player of Games and now I just completed Use of Weapons.

Spoilers ahead, of course.

First, let me give Banks a posthumous "I see what you did there." The novel makes a point. The title is apt. Zakalwe (which I'll use by convention to refer to the main character) is a great commander and master manipulator, perhaps the ultimate weapon himself. The book did a good job of conveying how he became so tortured, mercenary and ambivalent even while maintaining his drive for redemption.

I also appreciate that the book was very ambitious in its structure, with the reverse chronology of the historical storyline. I found this to be initially extremely confusing, but only because I think confusion is inherent in the execution of such a structure, rather than Banks' execution being flawed. That said, I don't think the unconventional structure helped tell the story effectively. Chapters of the book were sort of shoehorned so that the "twist" could occur on the final page of the work proper, but it left a lot of the flashback chapters deliberately vague, and - on first reading - utterly boring or nonsensical. I understand now, in retrospect, how these chapters related to the theme but as I was reading, and under the impression that Zakalwe was Cheradenine and not Elethiomel, they seemed to drag on and hang there, disconnected from the overall narrative.

For example, let's dissect Zakalwe's chair-phobia. There are three distinct interpretations of it, that develop as you read.

The first reasoning you find is that Zakalwe discovered Elethiomel having sex with Darckense in a chair in the summer house. This barely makes sense with the amount of fear of chairs Zakalwe shows, especially since it's consensual sex and Zakalwe did nothing to stop them. It makes Zakalwe destroying the summer house seem like some gross over-reaction. This interpretation also makes the Chairmaker Darckense, which makes Zakalwe's obsession with the Chairmaker seem a bit half-baked.

The second reasoning, that emerges in the last few chapters, is that Elethiomel made a chair out of Darckense's bones. That definitely backs up the averse reaction to chairs. It also changes the motive for the summer house destruction to being reminded of the incident, a personal betrayal, as Major Zakalwe (Cheradenine pre-bone-chair) fights a war against Elethiomel, the Chairmaker, who we now know explicitly is the enemy they're fighting.

The final reasoning, that drops with the last page of the book proper, is the Zakalwe is Elethiomel and not Cheradenine, Major Zakalwe's (Cheradenine's) actions are not those of the main character, and Zakalwe fears chairs because it's a reminder of what he did to Darckense. Zakalwe is the Chairmaker.

Now, giving credit where credit is due, it's a feat that the novel has three retroactive explanations of a single trait. However, the first explanation, that stood for 75% of the book, was poor - mostly because it's really hard to justify an otherwise normal person having a terrible fear of chairs, and an obsession with his sister, the supposed Chairmaker. It seems clear that Banks designed the scene around the chair to put this interpretation forth (chair sex, plus filling us in on who made the chair which was irrelevant to the other two interpretations), so it's just a kind of lame placeholder for the real reason that comes later.

Banks relates sex and war (a common theme in literature and music) so you could also view the summer house scene as a foreshadowing of Elethiomel's violence against Darckense and the presence of chairs, but in the same chapter in which sex and war are related, nothing bad happens to Shias Engin (the woman that Zakalwe nee Elethiomel has sex with), so you could be forgiven for not jumping to conclusions when trying to determine whether that's just a fanciful metaphor or a hint 100 pages later.

Another side-effect of this story-telling mechanism that I thoroughly disliked is just how many characters are introduced only to be forgotten. When you're warping around time and space, it's hard to give any characters a solid conclusion, much less minor ones added for exposition's sake. The focus is clearly on Zakalwe and his humanity, his inhumanity, his struggle and how that relates to the Culture's use of Zakalwe (war) to achieve its goals. Unfortunately, that focus is all consuming and the other plotlines are discarded entirely. Compared to the previous two Culture novels, in which the geo-political situation was clarified and almost every named character has an end, this was a disappointing departure. We never know the outcome of any number of Zakalwe's exploits, even the one that was an integral part in his present-day storyline. I would have enjoyed more of Zakalwe's back story if the vignettes had been more than just ways to advance information about how they had fucked with his mindset - even if having other meaningful outcomes is contrary to the overall message of bleak moral quandary.

Intellectually, I think I grasp the novel and why he made these choices I disagree with... and yet, as someone that reads for entertainment I have to ask "At what cost?" The narrative was tortured by the structure, and I believe that a better work could have been formulated from the bones of this story and a more conventional approach. Use of Weapons is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. Ambitious, yes. Flawed, maybe, but not bad. It's hard to call it one-dimensional, but the description feels right. If not one-dimensional then perhaps fatally focused on getting across its heavy message.