There is a certain provincialism, even arrogance, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known, and by now well-worn, complaint that there are no second acts in American literature. In fact, modern writers in any country where writing is inextricably linked to media and money face a special challenge if a first novel proves critically and commercially successful. Such has been the case with Irvine Welsh, whose first book,Trainspotting (1993), about a group of drug addicts and other no-hopers from a part of Edinburgh well off the Festival trail and the maps of tourists and Tories alike, struck a vein in the national zeitgeist.Trainspotting proved enormously successful with Britain’s broadsheet reviewers and young, postliterate clubbers. Well-received stage (1994) and screen (1996) versions followed, along with a collection of stories,The Acid House (1994), and a second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares(1995). With the publication of Ecstasy, a trio of novellas, in 1996, the first act of “the Welsh phenomenon” ended and the backlash began. Jenny Turner, who had written one of the longest and most thoughtful as well as influential reviews of Welsh’s first novel, summed up what many felt: “There had been bad bits even in the magnificentTrainspotting. But the good bits are so brilliant, you want to forgive him everything”—until Ecstasy, that is, “the worst book yet from a writer who has been going from weakness to weakness ever since Trainspottingbegan its roll in 1993.”
There is something disconcerting, even depressing, about the speed and vehemence with which Welsh was being written off after having played a major role in a reshaping of “British” literature in the 1990’s no less momentous than the one occasioned by Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children, a decade earlier. Trainspottingis unquestionably a great and influential novel, but it ought not to be the gold standard for measuring Welsh’s later work. Trainspotting came out of nowhere, or out of Scotland, which for many was then much the same thing. It was powerful, scabrous, raw, and oddly cleansing, if not exactly uplifting. Welsh’s subsequent books all became bestsellers despite often critical reviews. However, these were the same reviewers who, obsessed with his early success, generally failed to appreciate how versatile Welsh could be in terms of verbal resourcefulness, formal experimentation, and post-political social engagement. The publication of Welsh’s longest and most ambitious novel after three largely Welsh-free years (the previous five having seemed to many, in Britain anyway, all Welsh, all the time) offers the opportunity to look at the new novel in light of this versatility rather than in Trainspotting’s long shadow.
Glue is the most tautly structured and fully conceived of Welsh’s four novels. Each of its four parts (there is also a “Reprise: 2002”) is set in a different decade and begins with a brief, playfully titled section, or operating system, entitled “Windows” (“Windows 70,” “Windows 80,” and so on). The first three parts are further divided into four sections, each narrated by one of the novel’s quartet of main characters. Part 4 comprises twenty short sections set in Edinburgh and New South Wales and a good many places in between. The change in structure suggests both the wider experience of one of those characters and the fact that, following the death of one of the four in the early 1990’s, the center of their already marginalized world failed to hold. Within this organizational scheme, Welsh allows individual stories to advance the overall narrative, while at times replaying the same scene from different perspectives or withholding information from one story only to supply it in another. It also allows Welsh to move back and forth between degrees of Edinburgh dialect and a standard English that is at times more parodic than it first seems, and to switch between the intensity and inherent limitations of the several first-person narratives and the wider sociopolitical context that is more fully present in Glue than in any of Welsh’s other works.
Matters of scope and structure aside, Glue is vintage Welsh: the schemie characters (schemies being the local term for people who live in public housing estates), the Edinburgh setting, the drinking and drugs (which change with the decades), the “shagging” and “slagging,” the swearing and “swedging”—in other words, sex, sarcasm, and scrapping—the irreverent wit, the copious body fluids, the gleeful skewering of social and cultural pretensions,...