Irvine Welsh

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1621

Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s stark, unsparing depictions of Edinburgh and Glasgow at the end of the twentieth century resemble in certain respects Irish writer James Joyce’s presentation of “dear dirty Dublin” in his novels set at the beginning of the same century, with one notable exception. Irvine Welsh leaves out the “dear.” His nihilistic view of modern life for working-class Scots is brutal. The dark humor that characterizes his works offers little comic relief; instead, it serves to magnify the brutality and desolation.

Much of Welsh’s fiction is composed of a series of broken first-person passages strung along a framework that frequently shifts between locations, times, and tellers. The structure frequently mimics the split-screen and multiple-level narratives of video and computer games, media formats with which the author and many of his readers are familiar. Welsh also pays homage to film techniques in his use of cutaways, fade outs, and montage. Alternate voices in Welsh’s fiction offer competing perspectives on events, as is the case in Trainspotting. The multiple narrators, some heavily drugged, others coming down from a high, still others desperate for their next hit, appear unreliable. However, even in their altered states, most of the characters readily admit to their lies and become, in a sense, inverted truth-tellers.

In Glue, a further dimension is added—time. The characters narrate life episodes at ten-year intervals, revealing individual personalities, as well as change, if not growth, over the decades. Welsh’s use of the Scottish vernacular, in particular his inventive phonetic spellings, is either loved or loathed by critics and occasionally challenges readers, but it captures the authentic street speech of the drug addicts, drop outs, and criminally inclined he depicts in his novels. This combination of inventive structure and original voice are trademarks of an Irvine Welsh novel.

A political conundrum dominates Welsh’s works. Ostensibly his plots and themes reveal a rejection of Thatcherism, the conservative social and economic politics associated with Margaret Thatcher, prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990. During her tenure, Thatcher argued against devolution, or home rule, for Scotland, fearing the country would be inundated with foreign immigrants and unable to function independently of Great Britain. Portrayals of epidemic drug addiction and rampant human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection among the disaffected youth of Edinburgh in Trainspotting and other novels appear an indictment of Thatcher’s failed social policies. Ironically, economic progress enabled the same conservative government to better provide for disenfranchised citizens in the form of social welfare programs and treatment centers. Both services are readily taken advantage of by the characters in Welsh’s first novel. Thus, the author presents Britain and its government as enablers, allowing Scotland and its citizens to continue their addictions, both to dependence upon British rule and to drugs. Through their use of aliases and bogus addresses, characters procure additional government aid with no remorse; they relish duping their perceived oppressor in this manner. In contrast, Mark Renton in Trainspotting differs from his mates. Though he lives on the dole and barters clinic-issued opium on the street for his drug of choice, heroin, he is more attuned to the irony of his situation, observing that it does little good to blame the British.

Welsh’s narratives are marked by intense depictions of aimless lives in bleak circumstances. Characters function (or more appropriately, malfunction) in a social network that revolves around abuse in its myriad forms. Illegal drug use, animal torture, and physical violence against women and men, including mates, abound in his novels. Most stories focus on the lives of men and fall into the category of masculinist fiction. The lives of young male drug addicts in Trainspotting are marked by a fascination with drugs, violence, football (soccer), and music. When excessive drug use has not rendered them disinterested in sex or completely impotent, they also obsess about, or engage in, sexual activities with young women, whom they frequently refer to in crude terms. Likewise Glue, the chronicle of four lifelong friends, focuses almost exclusively on male behaviors. In such works, Welsh posits the nature versus nurture question. Are the aggressive and violent behaviors of men biologically determined? Can society ever vanquish them? Welsh appears to answer in the affirmative to the first question and leave the second for readers to resolve.

In interviews, Welsh candidly discusses his former heroin addiction, reveals his postnationalist political views, and admits that his fiction portrays contemporary Scottish life as desolate and hopeless for many of its citizens. Responding to accusations from a handful of critics that his works promote a misogynist, racist, violent worldview, Welsh reminds readers not to confuse the author with his characters. The two characters most frequently cited by critics for their inhumanity are Begbie, who features in Trainspotting and Porno, and Detective Bruce Robertson of Filth. Their vile behaviors, including torture and rape, warrant such derision, but certainly they are the monstrous creations, not the mind-set, of their creator.


First published: 1993

Type of work: Novel

Welsh’s first novel follows the lives of five loosely associated acquaintances as they navigate the dangerous, but seductive, counterculture of drugs and sex in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1980’s.

Trainspotting depicts the adventures of five young men in Edinburgh’s violent, drug-infested, and depressed neighborhoods, an image at odds with the city’s global reputation as a cultural center. Welsh’s Edinburgh does not resemble the tourist destination, with its famed arts festivals, because he scrapes away the romantic veneer to reveal the city’s underclass realities: addiction, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and unemployment. When members of the gang journey to other locales, such as London, the scenery does not improve. The novel’s tour guides go by the nicknames Rents, Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, and Tommy. The majority of the stories are told by Rents, with his mates supplying the remainder in hodgepodge fashion. It is mainly an account of their parties and crimes. Their illegal activities include, among others, heists both major and minor and drug transactions and usage. Clearly the more shocking behaviors recounted in the novel fall under the category of people’s inhumanity and their indifference to the suffering of others: a baby’s crib death that does not stop a party, but merely relocates it; the arrogance of an HIV-positive man who engages in unprotected sex as a form of serial murder; and the premeditated killing of a dog executed as a practical joke.

The novel’s title is a reference to the pastime of marking the arrival and departure times of trains in stations. It is also a metaphor for drug usage, a way to pass the hours when there is nothing better to do or hope for. Though dark humor, gritty realism, and cold pessimism prevail in Welsh’s Trainspotting, the novel does provide a glimmer of hope for the future of its lead character. Though Mark Renton (or Rents) is a drug addict who endures numerous indignities to obtain his fixes, including rescuing opium suppositories from a befouled toilet, he neither glamorizes nor endorses his lifestyle. Throughout the novel, in actions and words, he expresses fatigue with his life’s predictability and hopelessness. When finally he flees his mates and Scotland after a double-cross at the novel’s end, it is with the intention of using his ill-gained money to go clean in Amsterdam, unlikely, since that city is another drug capital. Though Renton practices a skewed ethics—stealing from his partners in crime in order to save himself—he nonetheless breaks with the moral indifference of his comrades.

Characters in Trainspotting appear in other novels by Welsh, either in cameo roles, as in Marabou Stork Nightmares, or in larger roles, as in Glue. The novel Porno offers a reunion of sorts for the commiserating gang; the plot picks up where Trainspotting leaves off, following Rents’s flight.


First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

A multivoiced chronicle of male bonding that follows four friends across three decades, beginning in early childhood and ending at middle age with the suicide of one.

Glue is a novel that tracks male relationships and the maintenance of a group friendship over a thirty-year span of time, beginning in the 1970’s and ending early in the twenty-first century. At ten-year intervals, Carl, Gally, Billy, and Terry report on their lives and reveal their changing perceptions of self, each other, and the world. An atypical and postmodern bildungsroman (novel of development), Welsh’s work multiplies both the focus and the time frame of that traditional form. Though his characters share similar childhood hardships and adolescent misbehaviors, the adult men they become are quite disparate. Two become career men: Billy, an aspiring boxer entangled in organized crime, and Carl, a disc jockey at a nightclub. Two remain intoxicated free spirits: Terry frequents pubs and pursues women; Gally frequents jail cells and pursues drugs.

In the first segment, moral codes are bequeathed to the four from the previous generation of men, their fathers: Never hit a woman, stand by your friends, and never snitch. These simple directives initially offer the boys a guide for life, but they fail them in the end, when one adult character’s self-interest overrides his concern for the good of the group. Unlike Trainspotting, where a character’s break from the pack was a necessary and even brave act, Glue suggests the opposite.

In terms of its style Welsh’s fourth novel is reminiscent of Trainspotting and its cacophony of narrators, but Glue introduces a third-person narrative into the mix of character voices. Though suggestive of inhalant drug usage, the title of the novel actually refers metaphorically to the experiences that cement friendships, the adhesives that bond people for life.

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Welsh, Irvine