(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1621 words.)