Irvine Welsh 1958-
Scottish novelist, playwright, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Welsh's work through 1999.
Often referred to as a cult writer, Welsh has become known for his frenetic, vibrant prose and his preoccupation with the darker side of humanity. Several of Welsh's works focus on heroin addicts, social misfits, and the plight of Scotland's lower classes. Welsh's debut novel, Trainspotting (1993), won popular acclaim for its authenticity and critical praise for its inventive language and use of Scottish vernacular. Though the four books that followed received mixed critical responses, Welsh continues to be compared favorably to writers as diverse as James Joyce, Bret Easton Ellis, William Burroughs, and J. D. Salinger. Nick Hornby suggested that “Welsh may become one of the most significant writers in Britain. He writes with style, imagination, wit, and force, and in a voice which those alienated by much current fiction clearly want to hear.”
Welsh was born in 1958 in Leith, a poor neighborhood in Edinburgh, Scotland. He grew up in the tenement housing projects of Muirhouse with his father, a dock worker, and mother, a waitress. Welsh dropped out of school at sixteen, supporting himself as a dishwasher and TV repairman. He moved to London in the 1970s to join the punk music scene and soon began experimenting with drugs and petty crime. Welsh eventually overcame his drug habit and returned to Scotland, where he obtained a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA. After discovering the “rave” party scene in the early 1990s (raves were often characterized by all-night dancing, electronic music, and liberal drug use, particularly Ecstasy), Welsh began to write and published his first novel, Trainspotting, in 1993. Trainspotting achieved a wide measure of critical and financial success and was adapted into a popular film in 1995.
Trainspotting is comprised of a loosely connected set of episodes portraying the lives of Scottish heroin junkies and aimless drifters. The book covers the misadventures of Mark Renton and a group of malcontented friends, who are finally broken apart by a poorly conceived drug deal at the conclusion of the novel. Renton and his mates spend the course of the book railing against the establishment, civilization, yuppies, and Scotland in general. The plot of Trainspotting revolves around Renton's examination of his relationship with his fellow addicts and their perverse, self-delusional, and distorted world. Welsh followed up Trainspotting with a collection of short stories called The Acid House (1994). The stories in the volume are darkly comic—for example, in “The Acid House,” a cynical young man on LSD finds his consciousness transferred into the body of a newborn baby. Welsh's bleak portrayals of Scotland's lower classes focus on dissolution and despair, but the touches of humor give the stories a redemptive quality. In Marabou Stork Adventures (1995), Roy Strang enters a coma-like state after trying to suffocate himself with a plastic bag. The story relates his encounters with the people who come to visit him in his hospital room, for although Strang appears to be unconscious, he is aware of everything happening around him. As he drifts in and out of his coma, Strang creates a mental dreamscape, where he hunts the Marabou Stork, a scavenging, predatory bird that ravages the jungles of Africa. Blending realism and fantasy, Marabou Stork Adventures is an adventure story wherein Welsh examines feelings of regret, guilt, and the need for redemption. Ecstasy (1996) is comprised of three novellas in which the main characters all grapple with an assortment of drug-related problems and lurid sexual adventures. In “Lorraine Goes to Livingston,” Welsh recounts the story of a successful romance novelist who has suffered a stroke, and the revenge that she exacts on her husband who has been siphoning her profits to feed his pornography habit. “Fortune's Always Hiding” follows several handicapped characters as they seek revenge on a drug company that has sold untested drugs. The revenge ultimately involves dismembering the infant son of the drug manufacturer. The novel Filth (1998) presents the story of a misogynistic, racist, alcoholic Edinburgh police detective, Robertson, who is investigating the murder of the son of an African diplomat. Robertson's efforts to find the killer are secondary plot elements; the major thrust of the book focuses on his personal maladies and afflictions, including a horrible case of eczema, a difficult childhood, and an abusive father. In Glue (2001), Welsh returns to chronicling the lives of a group of slackers, detailing the escapades of a foursome from the projects in Edinburgh. The book traces their lives from their youth in the 1970s through their years in the 21st century.
Critics and readers alike embraced Welsh's first novel, Trainspotting. Many critics lauded the novel as innovative and humorous. Welsh has been commended for his skillful command of the Scottish vernacular, although some reviewers have complained that the heavy dialect makes the novel almost inaccessible to non-Scots. Reviewers also applauded Trainspotting's brutal yet accurate portrayal of the everyday life of drug addicts. Welsh's subsequent works have been met with varied reactions from critics. Most agree that Welsh has a talent for dialogue and humor, but several fault him for his lack of cohesive plots and his seeming obsession with sex, drugs, and deviant behavior. Welsh, however, asserts that he is a writer for the general public, not the critics or reviewers. Simon Reynolds quoted Welsh as saying: “You get all these … hypocrites in the literary establishment saying, ‘Oh, we must get more people reading. …’ As soon as someone like myself comes along and actually gets people reading books, they turn all sneery. What they mean is they want a market for the books they think people should read.”
Trainspotting (novel) 1993
The Acid House (short stories) 1994
Marabou Stork Nightmares (novel) 1995
Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances (novellas) 1996
Filth (novel) 1998
You'll Have Had Your Hole (play) 1999
Glue (novel) 2001
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SOURCE: “Schemies, Soapdodgers, and Huns,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,722, October 1, 1993, p. 20.
[In the following review of Trainspotting, O’Brien finds Welsh's voice an intriguing combination of black comedy and hard-edged realism, though he wonders what the future holds for a writer with so bleak a world view.]
Deciding to get off heroin, Mark Renton acquires two opium suppositories to help him through the worst of withdrawal. Caught short in the street, he takes refuge in the flooded lavatory of a bookie's, but the solution to the immediate problem is followed by alarm at the loss of the suppositories. There is nothing for it but to roll his sleeve up and retrieve them.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's first novel, is rich in incident of this kind. Renton's life is full of practical difficulties. A resident of Edinburgh—the heroin/AIDS capital of Europe—he has to maintain an elaborate system of multiple Giro claims as far away as London. He has to be pals with the psychopathic Begbie and the alcoholic Second Prize. To deal with his impotence, he has, sometimes, a girlfriend who doesn’t like sex. When a friend's baby dies in its cot, the immediate issues are shooting-up and avoiding the police. The hectic day-to-day induces amnesia: people disappear and are only noticed when they die.
Trainspotting seems designed to depress...
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SOURCE: “Sick Boys,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 23, December 2, 1993, pp. 10–11.
[In the following review, Turner links Trainspotting to the long tradition of substance abuse in Scottish life and literature, arguing that heroin, unlike alcohol, seems not to provide the comfort of false optimism to its users. According to Turner, Welsh's strengths as a writer are his unromantic realism about the life of the body and his ear for the slang of his working-class characters.]
I first heard of Irvine Welsh about a year ago, on a visit to the house of a friend of mine in Glasgow. This friend and I were talking, as we often do, about whether or not it is possible objectively to explain the special relationship that many Scottish men seem to have with their drink. Is it a nation thing, a class thing or a masculinity thing, or is it only a masochistic figment of the female imagination? Who are you trying to tell that it's only Scottish men who drink themselves into oblivion, and why shouldn’t a guy enjoy a pint with his mates in peace? This friend went on to show me “It Goes Without Saying,” a short story recently published by Irvine Welsh in Glasgow's excellent West Coast magazine. In it, a group of Edinburgh junkies sit around mumbling self-servingly, doing absolutely nothing while the baby of one of them lies suffocated in its cot. The usual drunken Scottish male...
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SOURCE: “The Lads of Leith,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,746, March 18, 1994, p. 12.
[In the following review of The Acid House, Welsh's follow-up to Trainspotting, Clee notes that the second book cannot match the intensity of the first. Still, he finds Welsh's talents for hard-eyed sympathy and flexible language undiminished.]
Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting published last summer, was one of the most arresting debuts for many years. A grim tour through the world of booze-addled, drug-addicted, HIV-infected Edinburgh youth, the novel was shocking, ugly and violent; it was also desperately funny, pitilessly compassionate. Welsh is a political writer: how, given his subject-matter, could he not be? Yet his narrative breathed uninhibitedly, unstifled by any point-making. There was no redemption for the characters in Trainspotting no validation of their lives through art. There was, though, sympathy, of the kind a writer can create with a truthful, unsparing imagination. The book showed, too, a remarkable command of language, being told mostly in a Scots vernacular that was inventive, flexible and strongly individuated.
The short stories in The Acid House have less impact. There is nothing here to match the charged tragi-comedy and linguistic resourcefulness of the chapters “The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival,” “The First Shag in...
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SOURCE: “Street Smarts,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 90, No. 1,619, April 1, 1994, p. 46.
[In the following review of The Acid House, Whiteside praises Welsh's skill at narrative surprise, preferring the surreal short stories to the more realistic novella and comparing Welsh to William Burroughs.]
Another season in hell with Irvine Welsh, and God it's invigorating. These 21 stories and one novella (A Smart Cunt: maybe a suggestion for a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime?) return to the world of Edinburgh junkies, drunks and low-lifes that got the treatment in last year's excellent, in-your-face novel, Trainspotting. The main narrative voice is again Welsh's brand of Edinburgh street vernacular, with its “oafays”, “boatils”, “radges” and “swedgin”, and again the most appalling violence and squalor is set off by vicious humour and a fierce sense of outrage.
Aside from the vigour of the language, what is immediately striking is Welsh's narrative skill. The openers, “The Shooter,” a tale of gangland revenge, and “Eurotrash,” a reminiscence of junkies in Amsterdam, consistently second-guess the reader. Just when you think you’ve worked out not just what's going on, but what sort of story you’re dealing with, Welsh pulls off a fine narrative trick. All the clues were staring you in the face, but odds on you walked straight past them....
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SOURCE: “Chibs with Everything,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4, 804, April 28, 1995, p. 23.
[In the following review of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Hornby lauds Welsh for living up to the promise of his earlier work and providing a fresh, energetic voice in British fiction.]
Irvine Welsh's first two books, Trainspotting (1993) and The Acid House (1994), were brilliantly cold-eyed, breathtakingly sordid and indisputably authentic portrayals of young Edinburgh low life—imagine James Kelman rewritten by William Burroughs with Ecstasy as the preferred drug. So exhaustive and definitive were these works that it was hard to see how Welsh could possibly proceed: was he going to continue to mine the same seam, with possibly diminishing returns, or was he going to move on? Queasier readers might have favoured the latter course of action—in Trainspotting, Welsh described, in excruciating detail, a junkie's attempt to retrieve an opium suppository that he has accidentally expelled into an overflowing toilet. So complete seemed Welsh's immersion in the detritus of his native city that it was difficult to imagine where he might go, or, indeed, where else would have him.
In the opening pages of Marabou Stork Nightmares, where Welsh begins to describe this crazy high-speed journey through this strange land in this strange vehicle”, we think we know what...
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SOURCE: “A Bit of Respect,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 350, April 28, 1995, p. 47.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott reproves other literary critics for being surprised at the combination of street authenticity and verbal prowess exhibited in Welsh's three books. Mannes-Abbott praises Marabou Stork Nightmares for its unflinching exploration of its narrator's abuses of power.]
Irvine Welsh has experienced phenomenal success in the two years since Trainspotting was published. That novel has bloomed into and beyond cult status, is currently on stage and will be filmed by the makers of Shallow Grave. The stories in The Acid House also met with acclaim last year, and are now being adapted for television. So, expectations for his new novel are unnaturally high and it has been trailed by a rush of nervously adulatory profiles.
The nervous adulation is partly fuelled by puzzlement at what he writes about and how to approach it, and at how someone familiar with it can write so well. It is a response that is as offensive as it is predictable. What is remarkable about Welsh's writing is that it is good at almost everything it attempts, and it attempts a lot. There is something at stake in his work, which is firmly located, uncompromising and formally inventive. Marabou Stork Nightmares embodies these qualities—rare indeed in British...
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SOURCE: A review of The Acid House in Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 113–14.
[In the following review, Allison provides a brief, generally favorable assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of The Acid House.]
This collection of short stories [The Acid House] is a brilliant impression of the postmodern problem of displaced youth. What makes Welsh's darkly humorous stories so remarkable is the contrast within them between new and old. Antisocial characteristics such as misanthropy, sexual perversion, and drug abuse clash with the traditional “old-world” flavor of the UK and its working-class values, friendly pubs, and soccer-team camaraderie. Most of the dialogue is a Scots dialect that forms a rustic veneer for the modern themes of social saturation.
Despite their fascinating social context, most of these stories can be taken lightly, for Welsh's ingenious fantasies give them levity. “The Granton Star Cause” shows us what it would be like to meet God, and what it is like to be invisible. This Kafkaesque piece follows the downward spiral of an amateur soccer player as he loses everything and is finally transformed into a bug by God. In one of the best examples of Welsh's use of Scots dialect, God accounts for his long-criticized absence from the world by saying, “Ah’m no deid; ah jist dinnae gie a fuck.” The title story, about a young...
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SOURCE: A review of The Acid House, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 151–52.
[In the following review of The Acid House, DeRossitt compares the richness of Welsh's prose to that of James Joyce.]
In the stories that make up this fine collection, The Acid House, Irvine Welsh's bleak portrait of Scotland's underclass, overwrought youth often assumes Joycean resonances through the uncommon richness of his writing. Wordplay, marvelously pungent vernacular, and constant risk-taking give these pages great stylistic bravura, but also a certain poignancy: in his depictions of hustlers, addicts, born losers, and Eurotrash idlers, Welsh gives us rare glimpses of the humor and hope that are the only consolations in his characters’ dark lives.
Common to all of these stories is the desperate attempt to maintain a sense of humor in the face of the constant indignities of blighted urban life. Cramped flats, distracted lovers, lousy jobs, and drug habits become the only compass points as the youthful characters wander into adulthood, and the potential for violence seems to lurk behind every relationship. But at the most unlikely moments Welsh surprises us with gusts of exuberant humor and absurdity. A Scotsman takes his family to Disney World and lambastes a costumed employee, only to find himself in surprising sympathy with the young man...
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SOURCE: “Pulp Fiction Turns to True Romance,” in Spectator, Vol. 276, No. 8,758, May 28, 1996, p. 28.
[In the following review, Jones compares Welsh to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, asserting that Welsh's novella collection Ecstasy manages to combine Tarantino-like grotesquerie with genuine warmth.]
Reading Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, is like watching Tarantino: exciting, urgent, thrilling, repulsive. With these three stories, though, Welsh has turned his hand to romance. Of course, when he talks of chemistry between people he means a similar taste in narcotics, but that perhaps is the point: in his bleak and despairing fiction the little things (tablets and touches, smiles and smokes) are all the more poignant. The reader is dragged, breath held, through the dregs, but is finally brought to the surface holding a pearl; his romance is convincing because he shows how rare and precious it is.
Welsh is a story-teller. Cast as the enfant terrible of British fiction, hyped as a cultish, drug-ingesting scribbler, it's forgotten that he weaves intricate plots with vital and cool prose. The first story is subtitled “A Rave and Regency Romance.” A slushy writer has a stroke, is taken to hospital, and meets the raving and man-hating nurse Lorraine. As her husband's perverse infidelities are revealed to her, the recovering writer's stories turn from being...
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SOURCE: “Just Say No,” in Observer (London), No. 10, 676, June 2, 1996, p. 14.
[In the following review, Adams finds Ecstasy a poorly written and uninteresting book. He argues that Welsh has tried too hard, and less successfully with each new attempt, to repeat the achievement of his promising debut.]
Irvine Welsh has taken to referring to himself as a “cultural activist” rather than as a writer. He is, we are reliably informed, the “Poet Laureate of the chemical generation”; his books “are bought by people who don’t buy books”, and this, his latest, has, a week before its official launch, already attracted 100,000 non-book-buying punters (rivalling the latest Jilly Cooper or Jeffrey Archer). Welsh is fast becoming the most mainstream “cult” author ever published.
His success is based on a striking first novel, Trainspotting, which seemed to speak with the authentic voice of junkies in housing project Edinburgh, and which was made into a stylish film. His writing since that bright beginning has been at best patchy—in the clumsy comedy of the short stories in The Acid House—and at worst numbingly repetitive—in the rambling Marabou Stork Nightmares. The three gormless novellas that fill the pages of Ecstasy are a still cruder imitation of the original.
Some of the territory covered here is that already...
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SOURCE: “In a Chemical World,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4, 862, June 7, 1996, pp. 23.
[In the following review, Imlah charges Ecstasy with a lack of sympathetic, or even acceptably differentiated, characters. Imlah contrasts this flatness with Trainspotting, in which even the most revolting character inspires a certain empathy.]
At the close of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's prodigious first novel, the junkie Mark Renton, having stolen his pals’ drug loot, is compelled to flee to a new beginning:
He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. … The thought both terrified and excited him. …
Trainspotting's phenomenal success placed its author in a similar dilemma. He had found a winning fictional formula in the torrential, ribald expression of his own East Coast subculture; but in so doing had already used up the choicest parts of his experience. His writing had to move on or perish in repetition. The second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, with its mixed-in African settings, literally unconscious narrator and typographical experiments, may have striven a bit too ambitiously to be different. Ecstasy, on the other hand—his fourth book, counting the stories of The Acid House, in three years—seems to have been tossed together in a...
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SOURCE: A review of Ecstasy in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 9, No. 406, June 7, 1996, pp. 37–38.
[In the following review, Kane gives Ecstasy a lukewarm appraisal. In contrast to the interpretation of Welsh as a realistic chronicler of the life of the body, Kane finds in Welsh a persistent, pathological dislike of the physical.]
If you wanted to cut to the chase, I suppose you could accuse Irvine Welsh of being a chemical determinist. In his new book Ecstasy, taking an E is the defining act that liberates many of his characters from their limiting, destructive selves. It blasts them out of their social orbits, spinning them into wild (and not always) benign possibility.
Brimming with MDMA, the fascistic Cockney nutter Dave falls in love with Samantha, a girl deprived of her arms by a Thalidomide-type birth drug. He joins her in a chain-saw death pact to avenge the corporate crime wreaked upon her limbs. Heather, a graduate mouse-wife subjected to her husband's career, rejects the prescribed Prozac and necks some eckies with her mate at a club. She instantly joins the world “far away from hate and fear”, and resolves to “dump the straight peg” as soon as possible.
All this follows on from Welsh's previous novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, in which Roy Strang's conversion from violent thug and gang rapist to guilt-ridden victim...
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SOURCE: “High Society,” in Artforum, Vol. 34, No. 10, Summer, 1996, pp. 15–17.
[In the following review, Reynolds contrasts the film version of Trainspotting with the novel, arguing that the film creates a different and less realistic portrayal of junkie culture.]
In Britain, pop culture and drug culture are almost synonymous these days. From Oasis’ anthems of coked-out glory-lust to Pulp's number-one hit “Sorted for E's and Wizz” (a brilliantly ambivalent evocation of the dream and lie of rave), from the ganja-delic paranoia of Tricky to jungle's journeys into the dark side of Ecstasy culture, British pop is all highs and lows, uppers and downers. Other sectors of the culture industry lag behind music in reflecting what every British kid takes for granted: the sheer omnipresence and banality of recreational drug use. Which is why Irvine Welsh, chronicler of the “chemical generation,” has become such a cult figure, and why the movie of his 1993 debut novel Trainspotting has become such a sensation in England, a sort of UK counterpart to Kids.
A big source of Welsh's appeal is the shock of encountering a writer who deals with British drug culture in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, while never concealing either its physical and psychic costs or the desperation that fuels it. The backdrop to his tales of lumpen-prole life in the deprived “housing...
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SOURCE: “A Smart Cunt,” in Village Voice, Vol. 41, No. 30, July 23, 1996, p. 74.
[In the following review, Lasdun discusses Trainspotting, The Acid House, and Marabou Stork Nightmares. Lasdun finds similarities between all three works, most notably in their examination of destructive impulses and the guilt that results.]
Irvine Welsh is certainly the hottest and probably the best of a new, distinct, and talented generation of writers currently emerging in Britain. Richly demotic in idiom, totally at ease with popular culture, casually maudit, they’ve given both fiction and poetry (Glyn Maxwell, for example) a much needed shot in the arm, extending the reach of serious writing to parts of the population you’d have thought gave up on books decades ago. Welsh in particular seems to have every subculture in the U.K. at his feet right now—Ecstasy-popping ravers, goths, skinheads, and terminal dole-moles, not to mention most of literary London and the professional “Scottish Renaissance” boosters of Edinburgh and Glasgow. His readings and signings are legendary, with fans lining the block to get in. The London film premiere of Trainspotting, based on his first novel (and the subject of a saturation-bombing publicity campaign), even made it onto the TV news. And Norton is now releasing his novella collection, Ecstasy, in August three months ahead of schedule....
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SOURCE: “A Little Drug’ll Do Ya,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, pp. 1, 13.
[In the following review, Innes praises Trainspotting and disparages Ecstasy. She connects Welsh's literary success with a hunger for British fiction not written by authors from former British colonies.]
Every now and again a work of fiction accidentally brings into focus something which has been lurking foggily on the edges of our collective psyches. Suddenly the book is not simply a work of art but a cultural icon, the expression of a prevailing mood or moment in history. For a critic, whose touchstone must always be “Is it art?,” groping a way through the snowstorm of hype surrounding such literary events can be a real mind twister. For the artist, being an icon can sometimes get in the way of creativity.
The latest hot literary phenomenon is Trainspotting, a first novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, which the Scottish alternative magazine, Rebel Inc., hypily described as “the best book written by man or woman … Deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.”
A fast-paced, tremendously good-humored, expletive-laden evocation (in local dialect) of the youthful Edinburgh drug scene and its attendant poverty and violence, Trainspotting has been a cult classic in Britain for three years, especially among students. It has...
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SOURCE: “Chemistry Set,” in New York, Vol. 29, No. 32, August 19, 1996, pp.48–9.
[In the following review, Kirn looks at each of the three novellas contained in Ecstasy, preferring “Fortune's Always Hiding,” because Welsh resists his urge to evangelize on behalf of his favorite drug in this story.]
What if it turns out that drug culture is culture? That literature, when you boil it down, is chemical? Take away Balzac's coffee, Faulkner's bourbon, or Kerouac's pep pills, and what would you have left? We’ll never know. Separated from their drugs of choice, certain writers and movements make little sense. And the equation works the other way, too: Opium without De Quincey, and heroin without Burroughs, are just strong cough suppressants. Cocktails without Fitzgerald are just sweet drinks. Of course, not every substance finds its genius (airplane glue remains unclaimed), and not every genius finds his substance (I think of Norman Mailer, for some reason).
Ecstasy, the drug, is now the book—a collection of three novellas by Irvine Welsh, the British writer whose first novel, Trainspotting, inspired this summer's movie. From its title to its Day-Glo packaging, the book comes off as an all-too-conscious attempt to style yet another corporate youthquake. Welsh, his hipster publicists babble, has invented a “new genre: the chemical romance,” but luckily,...
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SOURCE: “Needles and Sins,” in New Republic, Vol. 215, No. 4,259, September 2, 1996, pp. 31–4.
[In the following review of Trainspotting, Mendelson focuses on the maturation of Welsh's protagonist Renton. Mendelson also discusses Welsh's use of irony and compares Trainspotting to both J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and James Joyce's Dubliners.]
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's novel about heroin addicts in Edinburgh, arrives from Britain with much fanfare, due primarily to the simultaneous release of the movie based on the book. Critics have claimed that the film “glorifies” the use of heroin, and some have said this about the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but the novel is not an encouragement to start shooting up. Welsh writes with a wit that's calculatedly outrageous, and his main character, Mark Renton, can be winningly sarcastic, especially when he's in need of a fix; but this does not make the book an advertisement for drugs. Nor is Trainspotting intended to be a documentary account of a user's life. A ragged tale of young junkies in their 20s living on the dole, fending off adulthood and trying to escape from a world of AIDS, death and national despair, the novel is a coming-of-age story set in a milieu so miserable that it is easy to understand the characters’ desire for oblivion. But to say that Trainspotting glorifies heroin is like...
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SOURCE: “Is it Ecstasy, or Existentialism?” in Insight on the News, September 16, 1996, pp. 34–5.
[In the following review of Trainspotting and Ecstasy, Roberts argues that Welsh is to the 1990s what Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were to the 1980s: chroniclers of empty drug-addicted lives.]
In the mid-eighties we had Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis’ drug-steeped, alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated saga of disaffected youth set in Los Angeles, and Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney's East Coast version of the same. With attitudes that fluctuated between boastful self-regard and whiny self-loathing, Ellis and McInerney seemed to speak for a generation of Americans with time on their hands, money in their pockets and nothing on their minds.
Now we have Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's drug-steeped, alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated saga of disaffected youth set in Edinburgh, Scotland. The characters are working-class rather than wealthy and their drug of choice is heroin rather than cocaine, but otherwise the story remains the same: young people desperately seeking to fill their inner void.
The novel, published in 1993, was a smash, and the film version became the second biggest box-office hit in Britain's history. Both were released simultaneously in America this summer, just about the time the nation's style sections were...
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SOURCE: A review of Marabou Stork Nightmares, in American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 153, No. 12, December, 1996, pp. 1641–42.
[In the following positive review of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Merikangas compares Welsh to Thomas De Quincey, William Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, and James Kelman, asserting that each of these authors offer readers insight into the psychology of drug use without the dangers of the actual experience.]
“Ecstasy” is defined as “intense joy or delight. A state of emotions so intense that one is carried beyond rational thought and self control” (The American Heritage Dictionary). The word is derived from the Greek ekstasis, meaning “astonishment, distraction.” It is a synonym for “rapture,” which comes from the old French meaning of “carrying off.” But ecstasy is also MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), an easily synthesized recreational drug of abuse that increases both dopaminergic and serotonergic function. It produces a longer lasting high than cocaine. This drug plays a major role in this startling novel [Marabou Stork Nightmares].
Ecstasy was first synthesized 80 years ago; it was developed from the basic structure of amphetamine. Its therapeutic use to enhance openness, awareness, and empathy has been supplanted by its illegal use in “Raves” in both Great Britain and the United...
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SOURCE: A review of The Acid House, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1997, p. 401.
[In the following review of The Acid House, Bush examines Welsh's use of dialect and jargon, finding such language rhythmic and poetic.]
A shorter Welsh lexicon to begin: nowt mean “nothing” (of course); masel is myself; fitba, football; ootay, out of; wisnae, wasn’t; nawe, and all; goat, got; puff, life; gaunny, going to; when eb kens that every cunt’ll ignore um until eb speaks—when he sees that every fellow, etc.
In this follow-up to his celebrated Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh frequently wrests a nervy Joycean haiku from his phoneticisms. One wispy section of “Sexual Disaster Quartet,” for example, casts a man's sexual history into a brief scatological scrawl: “Rab's nivir hud a ride in eh's puff; perr wee cunt. Disnae seem too bothered, mind you.” Not every line in The Acid House crackles with such pink, new, hell-bent freshness, such an evident ear for living speech. Yet a sense of the newly imagined clings to almost every story here, brilliantly so where the demotic, the drugged, the ironical, and, sometimes, the surreally flamboyant are boiled together with a rough and fierce naturalism.
Welsh is most at home with working-class Scotsmen in Edinburgh, London and on the continent who live in vibrant stalemates with...
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SOURCE: A review of Marabou Stork Nightmares, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17. No. 2, Summer, 1997, p. 269.
[In the following review, Zamsky applauds Marabou Stork Nightmares for its balance of empathy toward and harsh judgment of its wrongdoing narrator.]
Welsh is back with the schemies. In his novel The Marabou Stork Nightmares, Irvine Welsh revisits the life of raging Scottish youth with the same fury and honesty as Trainspotting and Acid House. As with his previous books, Welsh displays an almost unsettling ability to sympathetically complicate the lives of loathsome characters. In Nightmares, Welsh writes from the perspective of Roy Strang, a racist, sexist, homophobic budding soccer hooligan. Miraculously, he manages to do so in such a way that while we understand how Strang's own self-loathing conspires with the cruelty of his life to prescribe habitual violence, we still hold him personally responsible for his involvement in a horrific crime. Welsh constructs a situation in which there is the possibility, perhaps the imperative, for understanding without forgiveness.
It is this posing of the crux between empathy and justice that makes Welsh's use of the first person the most interesting aspect of the novel, and the most disturbing. Although Strang remains in a coma throughout the novel, he speaks to the reader as if in a...
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SOURCE: “Fiction into Film, or Bringing Welsh to a Boyle,” in Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, July, 1997, pp. 158–62.
[In the following review, Cardullo devotes more attention to the film than to the novel Trainspotting, but his close comparison of the exact words used in equivalent passages pinpoints differences. Cardullo compares the novel to The Catcher in the Rye and the film to a long list of predecessors, including the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night.]
Like it or not, Scotland's Trainspotting [the film based on Irvine Welsh's novel] can be seen as a kind of existentially nihilistic travelogue for the rest of the world. Yes, it's true that Scotland is not so remote a place; still, the representation of this country in the cinema has more or less been limited over the last few decades—at least for those of us living outside the United Kingdom—to the charmingly whimsical comedy of Bill Forsyth in such pictures as Gregory's Girl (1981) and Comfort and Joy (1984). And although the depiction of English society generally in the cinema is certainly not limited to the Oxbridge-Thatcherite view of the world (witness only the films of Ken Loach), this is the view, through yuppie eyes, in the British-museum tradition of Alexander Korda, that gets the most international publicity in movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sense and...
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SOURCE: A review of Filth, in Observer (London), No. 10,791, August 9, 1998, pp. 14–15.
[In the following review of Filth, Taylor finds Welsh's Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson a dull and revolting main character.]
Conceivably, Filth could be filthier. It could, for example, have real worms, or lice or maggots, eating their way through its pages rather than the imaginary one which is gobbling up the novel's protagonist, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, gnawing away at him like the Ebola virus. That, however, might be asking readers to stomach more than they are capable of holding down. For Filth as Irvine Welsh's publisher accurately points out, is a book that does not contravene the Trades Description Act. Few books fulfil the promise of their titles so graphically.
DS Robertson is the ‘filth’ in question, a member of the Lothians and Borders police force, with whom the novelist enjoys, at best, an ambivalent relationship. Robertson is not, however, a detective like Marlowe or Sam Spade, or even the lugubrious Taggart. He does not, for example, seem much interested in solving crimes. Quite the opposite, in fact. Given half a chance, he steals from old ladies, rapes young girls and puts substances up his nose which will not clear his sinuses. Dixon of Dock Green must be turning in his grave.
Ostensibly he is on the trail of a...
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SOURCE: “Loathing in Lothian,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,976, August 14, 1998, p. 7.
[In the following review, O’Brien analyzes Filth in the context of Welsh's entire career, calling the novel a return to the serious writing delivered in Trainspotting but missing in Welsh's three subsequent works.]
Bruce Robertson [in Filth] is an Edinburgh detective seeking promotion. He is a misogynistic, racist, Jambo (Hearts-supporting) bigot, with the mind of the Daily Sport and the vanity of a Times leader. He knows everything and hates everyone. He is dishonest and cunning, reserving his profoundest contempt and vilest manipulations for his friends and colleagues. His wife has left him. He is an alcoholic, a coke-head, obsessed with heartless sex and burdened with appalling musical taste—Deep Purple, Ozzy Osborne and Michael Bolton (the last may be considered a cruel and unnatural punishment, even for Bruce). His free time, when not used in wrecking careers or in the sexual pursuit of a colleague's wife, is spent on the square with the Masons. Some of Robertson's colleagues, and some of the Edinburgh villains, are nearly as bad as he thinks they are—but Bruce himself has it coming, by the truckload, to and from every orifice.
It is the time of year when Bruce prepares to take his winter week's holiday in Amsterdam and avail himself of the...
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SOURCE: “Filthy Mind,” in Village Voice, Vol. XLII, No. 37, September 15, 1998, pp. 71–73, 127.
[In the following review, Reynolds argues that Filth emphasizes a character who is powerful rather than powerless, and thus contains no hint of the romanticism Welsh has previously used to soften his portrayal of dissolute characters.]
Irvine Welsh is shaking his skinny ass, gliding across the floor of a cramped recording studio in South London, an impish grin on his face. He's dancing to his own work-in-progress, a disco track he's made with buddy Kris Needs (a veteran English gonzo music journalist) for an album soon to be released via Creation Records, the label most famous for giving the world Oasis.
Although Welsh pens the lyrics, his musical role in the project seems limited to power of veto and vision-maintenance: right now, he's worried that his partner will smother the '70s disco vibe by bringing in too much of a '90s hard techno edge. “Keep it cheesy, Kris,” Welsh admonishes. Needs responds by sampling an orgasmic moan from an obscure gay house-music track, “Mr Policeman,” and looping it into the pumping groove.
The scenario of “Mr Policeman”—a cop getting a blowjob—weirdly parallels the most repellent scene in Welsh's new novel Filth, which is something like a cross between Bad Lieutenant and Prime Suspect. The...
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SOURCE: “The Way of All Flesh,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 20, 1998, p. 7.
[In the following review of Filth, Jensen gives a detailed tour of the narrative structure of the novel, finding it most powerful at the halfway point and flawed at the beginning and end.]
During the course of his narration, Bruce Robertson, whose voice carries Filth, Irvine Welsh's third novel, provides a running account of the music he listens to, mostly while driving his Volvo about Edinburgh, less frequently while at home. A sampling of the Robertson playlist looks like this: Deep Purple's “In Rock”; Ozzy Osborne's “Ultimate Sin”; Led Zeppelin's “Houses of the Holy”; and the Michael Shenker Group's “Assault Attack,” “Rock Will Never Die” and “Built to Destroy.”
Then there's Michael Bolton. Bolton sings, on a “compilation tape I made, ‘How Am I Supposed to Live Without You’ … and I sing my heart out.” This is clearly not the musical menu of a man with eclectic tastes, and instead is an indication that Robertson has a hairline fracture in his soul, through which Bolton's snuggly croon leaks in among all the Metal. Rending the gap in the course of the novel shows a matured Welsh at his best and proves more interesting than discovering the reasons for the fault.
Most American readers first encountered the writing of Welsh in...
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SOURCE: “The NS Interview,” in New Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 4,434, May 3, 1999, pp. 22–23.
[In the following interview, Welsh discusses his double past as junkie and business student, his political leanings, and his odd position of straddling fringe and mainstream culture.]
Entertaining Irvine Welsh is a nervy business. For a start, it is hard to know quite whom to expect. The penultimate sighting of Welsh was in Elle magazine, where he was pictured at the sparkly launch party for his (much-reviled) play, You’ll Have Had Your Hole, surrounded by such literary heavyweights as Mel G and All Saints. Two days later, the author of Trainspotting was seen in a railway carriage in the advanced stages of a protracted bender and—following passenger complaints about his behaviour—arrested and reportedly hauled off to the police cells for five hours. On recent evidence it seems wisest to hide all naff CDs (Welsh, Spice Girl connections notwithstanding, is a serious musician) and get in the beer.
Neither precaution is necessary. He arrives promptly, requests sugarless tea and admires the back garden. He is as non-confrontational as a gas meter reader and almost as anonymous; a big, amiable bloke with a razor-scraped head and bluebottle-green bovver boots. I would not have recognised him, but he says he is always being singled out by pub drinkers seeking...
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Bing, Johnathan. “Trainspotting: Can It Repeat U.K. Success?” Publishers Weekly 243, No. 20 (13 May 1996): 28.
Bing speculates on the marketing necessary to make Welsh as successful in the U.S. as in Britain and compares Welsh to Terry McMillan.
Black, Alan. “Death Without Dying.” San Francisco Review of Books 21, No. 1 (January-February 1996): 14-15.
In this review of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Black, the producer of the American stage version of Trainspotting, argues that Welsh's importance as a writer transcends his cultish appeal. For Black, Welsh's strengths are compassion for his characters and a rebellious use of vulgarity.
Howard, Jennifer. “Fiction in a Different Vein.” Washington Post Book World XXVI, No. 36 (8 September 1996): 1, 10.
Howard discusses Trainspotting and the question of whether or not the novel glorifies heroin use. Howard also reviews Ecstasy, and finds it an entertaining but shallow follow-up to Welsh's first novel.
Morton, Brian. “Sharing Needles.” New Statesman & Society 22, No. 1,587 (6 August 1993): 37-8.
Morton compares and contrasts Welsh's first novel with Allan Massie's These Enchanted Woods, which depicts Scottish aristocrats.
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