Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945
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.”
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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 the liberal reader. While it charts Renton's halting progress towards abstinence, its reading of society is unsparing. The characters are
Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. Its nae good blaming it on the English for colonizing us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonized by wankers. We can't even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonized by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes.
Internecine Scottish loathing is vividly elaborated through football (Hibbies are immune to AIDS, one character proposes), religion and a litany of Jambos, schemies, soapdodgers, Weegies and Huns whose antics might almost make Marx revise the future in favour of the bourgeoisie.
Any inclination to view Trainspotting as school-of-James Kelman should be measured against the book's nihilism, which borders on the overweening. For all the cold-eyed observation of how things are set up to encourage schemies to destruction, politics as an activity is defunct. Trainspotting remains extremely readable, in part because of Welsh's comic talent, which ranges from the Connollyesque (a corpse seems not to be dead because an electric blanket is making it sweat) to the vengefully sadistic. The dialogue is frequently hilarious. There are occasional glimpses of something morally tougher, but these are masked by the book's main vice, its knowingness. Irvine Welsh's debut is undoubtedly impressive. Where it might lead is hard to imagine.
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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 self-destructiveness thing suddenly looked a bit soft-focus by comparison.
For what it's worth, the two of us came to the conclusion that it's probably impossible objectively to explain the special relationship between a Scottish man and his drink, except in one interesting respect. In the imagined community that is the Scottish nation, alcohol is everywhere fêted as a thing of life and joy, social warmth and spiritual insight. It is fêted cynically, by Tennents, McEwens and Famous Grouse, in alcohol advertisements which always, but always, tap a patriotic theme. And it is fêted, quite honestly and sincerely, as an agent of spiritual transformation and communion, in Scottish literature from Burns's ‘Tam O'Shanter’ to MacDiarmid's Drunk Man.
Given the power and all-pervasiveness of discourse like this—given also the fact that drinking is generally so much fun—it comes to seem a bit counter-intuitive, a touch dog-in-the-mangerish, positively unpatriotic, to make a meal out of the selfishness, the irresponsibility, the cruelty and disease that alcohol often brings along in its wake. The links between alcohol as communion and alcohol as addiction are fogged and fuddled by the delusory warmth of the amber liquid, whose most pleasant characteristic is the way it cheerily shuts off self-consciousness before moving on to do its harm. Heroin, on the other hand, is not a substance that gets much public vaunting, in the literature of Scotland or of any other country. Further, heroin use does not seem to give rise to cosy intimations of brotherly love, in Irvine Welsh's telling of the tale at least. Like all Scots, the hero of Welsh's book feels passionately connected to Scots in general. Like any bar-room bore, he has loads of opinions on what Scots are and what their problem is. But unlike your average drunk, he has no way of warming up his basic view of himself as a useless, substance-addicted, self-destructive waster. “Ah hate the Scots,” he comments at one point. “Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It's nae good blaming it oan the English fir colonising us. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers … What does that make us? The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation.” At another point in his story, Welsh puts the matter more gnomically: “SCOTLAND TAKES DRUGS IN PSYCHIC SELF-DEFENCE.”
The focus of Trainspotting is a young man called Mark Renton or Rents, a heroin addict who was born and brought up in Leith, the old port neighbourhood on the north-eastern side of Edinburgh. Renton has had it with steady work, having been an apprentice joiner for a while and given it up. He has tried, and also given up on, being a university student in Aberdeen, where he blew all his grant money on alcohol and prostitutes in the space of a term. Sometimes he lives in London, where he is part of a syndicate which makes its money by claiming welfare benefits under false pretences. Sometimes he is back in Leith, hanging about with family and old friends, several of whom are heroin addicts like himself, and most of whom are criminal to a greater or lesser degree. In “It Goes Without Saying,” it is Renton who solves the problem of the dead baby, by cooking up some drugs in response to a desperate request from the dead baby's mother. “Naebody,” he comments, “could ivir be in this position and then deny that absolute power corrupts. The gadges move a few steps back and watch in silence as ah cook. The fuckers will huv tae wait. Lesley comes first, eftir me. That goes without saying.”
In form, Trainspotting is made up of connected story-cycles, some told in Renton's voice, others by his friends. The effect, weirdly, is not of remoteness but of a shockingly close emotional engagement, as the particles of your mind start sinking, not into a single-person-shaped discourse, but over every single member of a complicated group of long-time friends. Welsh's gang of Leithers have known each other since they were children. They are linked by house-sharing, needle-sharing, gossip, reputation and hearsay, babies, borrowed money and gang activities, and very much by loyalty and love. ‘Intense’ is hardly the word for the noise made by the clamouring of these various souls. One time, a character will be telling us some anecdote about bad drugs or London or the Iggy Pop concert, or what happened when he popped in on his Nana in the sheltered housing scheme at the foot of Leith Walk. Next thing, we will be hearing from somebody else that that person has started a university access course, gone away and come back again, or—as happens more than once—become infected with HIV.
Much of the writing is completely hilarious. It can be hilarious by linguistic rhythm and turn of phrase, as in the stories of poor Spud, a man with a fatal weakness for calling everybody ‘cat’, and for saying ‘likesay’ every second word. It can be hilarious by incident, as in the story of how Renton and Spud both get sent by the Jobcentre to the same set of interviews, scheming between themselves as to how best not to get the job while giving the impression that the job is the thing above all others each of them wants to get. And even when there is nothing funny about a story at all, when the matter of the tale, as in “It Goes Without Saying,” is chilling, appalling and utterly bleak, Welsh has a strange way of crafting events so that the point is made with an uncanny sharpness, a dread and mirthless sort of wit beyond wit.
In the most completely hilarious episodes, Welsh is working, to devastating effect, on all these fronts at once. I am particularly fond of “Deid Dugs,” a tale told by Simon, a chancer of such doe-eyed irresistibility and ruthless rapacity that he goes among his disgusted yet envious friends by the name of Sick Boy. At the beginning of this story, Simon is sitting at his window with an airgun at the ready, when along comes a skinhead with his devil dog. Simon (or rather “Shimon” the Sick Boy's head is full of a private fantasy in which he is best friend and shidekick to the Sean Connery version of Jamesh Bond) shoots at the dog, which goes mad with pain and turns upon its owner as intended. Our hero leaps down his stair to beat the dog to death and save the skin, who cannot understand why his beloved Shane should have turned against him. A policeman arrives and praises Shimon for bravery and preshence of mind. “The Sick Boy is going round tae Marianne's the night for some sick fun. Doggy style must certainly be on the menu, if only as a tribute to Shane. I am high as a kite and horny as a field of stags. It's been a fucking beautiful day.”
Basically, Trainspotting sets out to investigate the mechanisms by which the Scottish male drive to self-destruction works. Logically, aesthetically and morally, this is a difficult trick to pull off. On the one hand, here are Renton and his mates plumbing what is often the absolute pits of non-governmental human behaviour. To write honestly and rigorously, Welsh has to stay with Rents and affirm everything about him, right down to the point at which he fucks his brother's pregnant girl-friend at that brother's funeral, commenting of the experience that it was “a wee bit like throwin the proverbial sausage up a close”. At the same time, it would obviously be pointless to go on admiringly about the dreadful self-loathing mess into which Renton has got himself. Welsh's task, then, is to affirm without being affirmative, to recognise without giving the stabilising stamp of approval that the act of recognition generally, if fallaciously, entails. Renton accordingly is kept moving, kept shifting, relapsing on himself, contradicting himself and hating himself, right up to the novel's very end. His voice is endlessly intelligent, endlessly engaging, endlessly empathetic. Life would be easy if the doing of bad things was all it took to make a messed-up man clearly a worthless person. But often it seems more like the opposite that is closer to the case.
In one particularly gross episode in his book, Welsh has Renton insert some opium suppositories up his backside, supposedly as a prelude to kicking his habit for good. Unfortunately, as Renton has previously noted, his body has already been so deprived of drugs as to allow his jam-packed intestines, constipated in the way the junky intestine usually is, to loosen off and start to move. You may imagine what happens next. This episode is very funny in its grossness, a sort of realist version of William Burroughs's talking arsehole routine. But it is also, like the talking arsehole routine, much more than merely funny. As I have said already, one of the most exciting things about Welsh's book is the way it draws you right inside a community of people living in a close and tangled proximity to one another. Because these folk are often as not drunk or stoned or worse, things like excrement, urine, vomit, semen, smegma, menses and vaginal discharge are forever getting spilled out and displayed. Welsh, like Burroughs, is completely in-your-face about his attitude to these dirty, shameful things: just don’t bother even pretending to be shocked, is how the attitude goes. There is not a person alive who is not busily consuming and producing, consuming and producing, even as they read.
Now I personally have never had any interest at all in doing drugs, apart from coffee and cigarettes and the odd burst of sugar for the blood. Yet I always find myself pouncing, with a feeling like I’m really hungry for it, on any sort of writing I can find that talks not exactly about bodily functions, but about the way a person's whole mind and identity is completely tied up and absorbed in their experience of their bodily functions, every waking second of every single day. And for some reason—for several reasons which are in fact fairly obvious when you think about it—it is often drugs writing which does this best. Substance abusers in general, and injecting heroin users in particular, experience their experience right at the ragged edge of the body-mind interface, at a place where the conventional distinction between inside and outside gets shaken and disturbed. The little rituals by which they try to heighten, control or deny the circulatory system moving round and about their bodies are different only in degree to what people are doing when they decide to have a cup of coffee or give coffee up, eat a Mars Bar or eat a beansprout sandwich, indulge in colonic irrigation or go on an F-Plan Diet. Now literature acknowledges these rituals most usually only in an airbrushy, fetishised way, with long descriptions of food eaten and sex had and marvellous epiphanies experienced while in the blessed state of being drunk or stoned. But writing like Welsh's also accounts for why readers find such things so gratifying, by following them back to their sources, in solids and liquids, ingested and expelled, along all the miles of tangled tubes and ducts and pulsating valves that go to make up a single human body. If you’re going to try to feed yourself by reading, you might as well read something which is anatomically correct.
Given that Renton's mind is so very much a mind sunk into its experience of its body, it is hardly surprising that we can follow this tubes-and-valves metaphor right through to the way Welsh writes about the constant flow of stuff that throughout Trainspotting is seen to explode, pour out and otherwise exude from Mark Renton's brain. Renton would not be interesting were he not relentlessly intelligent and sensitive, well-meaning, bien pensant and capable of astonishing feats of logical stamina. But Renton would not be interesting either were he not also full of holes and gaps and aporia, owner of a mind so speedy and active that it can never get going on an argument without slipping right off all the most important cogs. In the part of his book that puts Renton face to face with a series of well-meaning drug-abuse psychotherapists, Welsh seems to be suggesting that Renton needs his drugs exactly because he has to suffer the consequences of living with a mind that habitually moves too fast: “Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sittin oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing games shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.” Renton has, as it were, thought everything through and found it wanting, with the result that he has life all sewn up, leaving himself none of it left actually to live.
Renton of course spends much of his time watching TV, eating junk food and pishing and shiteing himself anyway. As William Burroughs has noted often, the relationship of drug user to the used is the paradigmatic example of everyday capitalist relations in just about every respect. Value starts accruing on a useless product with the poverty-stricken folk who grow it in the first place, and goes right on accruing down the chain of mules and dealers, to the hapless user who would sell his granny for a toke. Oh well. Not even in his stonedest moments does Renton ever claim that there is anything particularly noble about what he is trying to do: “You just want tae fuck up on drugs so that everyone’ll think how deep and fucking complex you are. It's pathetic, and fucking boring.” Like many a poet and philosopher before him, Renton goes on to argue himself into pure solipsism, the only position from which a man can hope to keep his consistency clean. “Why should ah reject the world, see masel as better than it? Because ah do, that's why. Because ah fucking am, and that's that.”
Unfortunately for Renton, even the purest heroin he can find does not seem to be strong enough ever to free him for more than a second from knowing perfectly well that his logic on this, as on most other matters, is completely shot. For Renton, though he tries to hide and deny it, is seen throughout this book as a man in the process of giving heroin up. He is growing out of his need for this particular sort of dependent relationship. Like most junkies usually do if left to their own devices, he is starting to find the effort of taking heroin more bother than it is worth. Renton attempts to conceal what he is thinking with all sorts of bluster, including a very sharp comparison of this ageing out process to the more socially acceptable psychotherapeutic “cure”.
For all his avowed commitment to the magisterial and monumental wasting of his own life in exactly the way he chooses, you can tell that Renton is about to be exposed yet again as inconsistent in every way. For Renton secretly knows that we know that he will in spite of himself end up having the choice of life thrust on him. In spite of his junky pride, Renton cannot help but expose himself to being secretly a fighter who is going to end up Choosing Life. The evidence is inescapably there in front of us, in the shape of this wonderful book.
It will be apparent that a lot of the strength of Welsh's way with language comes from its rendition, which is in a close phonetic approximation to spoken schemie Edinburgh Scots. When you begin the book, this looks off-putting. I lived in Edinburgh for many years, I read a lot of things rendered in various sorts of literary Scots, and I still found the oafays, thums and goats (off of, them and got) all over the first page of Trainspotting offputting as hell. Edinburgh speech is very different from Glasgow or Doric or Lallans, the dialects of Scots we are accustomed to seeing in print. Some of this peculiarity is lexical, words like radge and gadge and chorrie (mental, bloke and stealing) which seem to have entered Edinburgh from the travellers’ cant. Some of it is of more recent origin, the creative punning of idle minds at work in the city's clubs and bars. But an awful lot of what makes Edinburgh Edinburgh very much lies in the way you say your vowel sounds. We remember that Miss Jean Brodie was very particular about vowel sounds when engaged in distinguishing her brood of Edinburghians from the common herd. It is, then, completely necessary that Irvine Welsh should be just as particular about his vowel sounds.
Certainly, Trainspotting will be most immediately accessible to readers placed to understand what Port Sunshine is and what the Meadows, and why, while enjoying his “First Shag in Ages,” Renton chooses the thought of Wallace Mercer as an aid to preventing premature ejaculation. It will also be particularly enjoyable for readers who belong to the sort of imagined community that teaches you to understand why being tormented by the Sutherland Brothers should make Renton's brother quiver. This is just as it should be. All writing addresses its readers hierarchically, depending on how close the reader's world is to the world given shape inside the text. For many readers, Welsh's book will probably be the first book ever to invite their communion directly, instead of leaving them to steal what insight they can after all the layers of invited guests have imbibed their fill and gone home. But even for those who have never visited Scotland, Trainspotting will succeed as a mind-opener.
When James Kelman's first novel The Bus-conductor Hines came out, many readers felt turned off by the locality of it, by its use of Glasgow language, by the attention it gave to all sorts of specificities, like the construction of a roll-up and the making of a pot of mince. It took a while, but slowly and surely readers accustomed themselves to Kelman's particularities of thought and language, and have been engaging with Kelman's energy, Kelman's analysis, Kelman's rigorous and vivid sadness ever since. In a similar way, readers will inevitably start getting to grips with the world according to Mark Renton and his mates.
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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 Ages,” and “Bad Blood” from the earlier book. But the collection should not be described as a disappointment. The same talents are in evidence; only they are operating under lower pressure, serving miscellaneous effects.
There are several squibs. In “Where the Debris Meets the Sea,” Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Victoria Principal and Kim Basinger sit beside a Hollywood pool fantasizing about Leith lads, whose lives they glimpse through the pages of magazines with titles like Wide-O, Scheme Scene, and Bevvy Merchants. Madonna is reading an interview with Deek Prentice in Radge: “Yes, I’m in the habit of visiting places like the Spey Lounge, Swanneys and the Clan Tavern”, Deek tells the magazine. “But the public only see the glamorous side.” Victoria's favourite is Tam McKenzie: “Even through the shell-suit, ye kin see ehs tackle bulgin oot. Ah’d gie my eye teeth tae get ma gums aroond that!” But Kim brings her star-struck friends down to earth: “We’ll nivir go to fuckin Leith! … Yous ur fuckin dreamin!” A similar inversion takes place in “Snowman Building Parts for Rico the Squirrel”, in which an American family with soapopera values are regular watchers of a show called The Skatch Femilee Rabirtsin (“C’moan doll, get thum oaf,’ Tony said with urgency but no passion”).
The alienation felt by the characters in Trainspotting is translated into physical terms in some of these stories. In “The Granton Star Cause,” Boab Coyle, an Edinburgh Job, loses his place on the local football team. Then his parents tell him it's time to move home. He phones his girlfriend, who says she has found another man. He gets arrested for breaking up the phone box. He gets laid off work. Drowning his sorrows in the pub, he meets God, who has taken against him. “Vengeance is mine, n ah intend tae take it, oan ma ain lazy n selfish nature, through the species ah created, through thir representative. That's you.” God turns Boab into a bluebottle. The title-story, a virtuoso performance, has the spirit of hooligan Coco Bryce entering the baby of a right-on Morningside couple as the child is born. “Coco could sense himself being held up; could sense his body, where his limbs were. He tried to shout: Coco Bryce! Hibs Boys!” A less playful version of this theme is “Snuff,” in which Ian Smith's obsession with videos ends with his starring in his own snuff movie.
Welsh's gift for ventriloquism is again apparent. A small-time felon, a druggie, a loser, a drainage-worker: each has a distinctive voice. A moving story called “The Last Resort on the Adriatic” is told by a retired widower as he returns to the cruise on which his wife committed suicide ten years before. (“Funny fellow, if you know what I mean. Nothing against them myself, live and let live and all that, but I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, let alone some blessed nancy boy.”) But the narrators to whom the author appears closest are the protagonists of “Eurotrash” and the novella A Smart Cunt: sharply intelligent but seeking oblivion, terrified of the void in their lives.
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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.
Welsh's debt to James Kelman is obvious, but his equal indebtedness to William Burroughs—particularly the Burroughs of the Doc Benway routines in The Naked Lunch—comes to the fore in The Acid House. In the very funny “Vat 96,” an English yuppie (“Oh, beer. Oh. Sorry. Gosh. We’re all out of beer. Oh God. Crawford and his beer!”) keeps her boyfriend's head in a fishtank, wired up to an electronic console so that he can watch her embarking on her next affair. Her dinner guests neglect to remark on this arrangement, and the only awkward moment comes when Crawford refuses a glass of wine.
In “The Granton Star Cause,” poor Boab Coyle not only loses his home, girlfriend and job (his boss has just been on a training course entitled “Positively Managing the Redundancy Scenario”), but has a less than satisfactory encounter with God (“That cunt Nietzsche wis wide ay the mark whin he sais as wis deid. Ah’m no deid; ah jist dinnae gie a fuck.”), and is turned into a fly (“He learned to appreciate the beauty of the insect body; the sexy, huge, brown eyes, the glistening external skeleton …”). Thus metamorphosed Boab is privileged to witness his parents’ unusual sexual practices and, strangely, it's at this point, not before, that the reader's credulity is stretched beyond its limits.
The collection as a whole is sick, horrific, occasionally moving and very funny. The stories are better than the novella, and the shorter forms allow Welsh free play to develop his narrative devices without showing off. Good, exhilarating, unpleasant fun, and it will be very interesting to see where this extraordinary young writer goes from here.
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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 we are getting, and we think we know why, too. The novel seems to offer a kind of surrealism (the “strange land” turns out to be a day-glo Boy's Own version of South Africa, born out of desperation). We reluctantly prepare ourselves for a wearisome sub-Hunter S. Thompson trek across the veld, and come to the premature conclusion that the Welsh cult has run its course.
But Welsh's talent proves to be much more robust. He disrupts the text (both typography and register change, the latter shift allowing a return to the author's more familiar demotic stomping-ground) to accommodate the shrill tone of an apparently comatose young man, Roy Strang, who is frantically resisting all attempts to bring him back to consciousness. “If I do come out the first thing ah’m gaunny fuckin well dae is tae rip yir fuckin queer English face apart wi ma chib”. Strang promises one of the doctors. This is altogether more intriguing. How did he get into this state? What is the relationship between the unapologetically urban Strang, a “cashie” (football hooligan) in more active days, and the predatory exotic bird of the book's title? The answers to these questions are articulated in an urgent, violent, bleakly funny prose.
It becomes clear that the African sections of the book represent a conscious attempt by the unconscious Strang to escape the horror of the present and the recent past; as a consequence, the hunt for the Marabou stork is drained of any meaning other than the symbolic. This strand of the story becomes irritating—the point has been made long before its end—and Welsh's pastiche of the Biggles school of yarn outstays its welcome. But such is the breadth of the writer's ambition that this weakness is easily forgiven. Strang's attempts to create a heroic persona for himself from the comic books and films of his youth are placed in the context of a culture of viciousness, thwarted desire, self-abuse and sexual violence, and if one of Welsh's many fictional experiments has failed him, it would be churlish to complain: writing of this ferocity and authenticity is rare in contemporary British fiction.
One suspects that, in the end, it is the descriptions of sexual violence which will attract the most attention; in particular, one long, graphically imagined gang-rape perpetrated by Strang and his hooligan cohorts—the key to the whole book—is bound to provoke accusations that Welsh has been sucked too deep into the mire. However, Welsh makes his own position clear enough, and the final grisly image in Marabou Stork Nightmares could be seen as a feminist revenge tragedy.
Contemporary popular culture is a fertile ground for young Scottish writers. Alan Warner's extraordinary first novel, Morvern Callar (reviewed in the TLS of March 31), obviously inspired by Welsh but with an atmosphere and perspective all of its own, has already demonstrated that Ecstasy and rave music need not be entirely enervating. Irvine 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.
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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 writing—and is itself a bold development.
It is about Roy Strang, who is unable to deal with his involvement in a gang rape and has tried to kill himself. As consciousness gradually returns after two years in a coma, the narrative splits between an adventure story about hunting the Marabou Stork in Africa, memories of growing up in a Scottish housing scheme, and the activity round his hospital bed. The hallucinatory shifts between strands are graphically rendered as they move towards an eventual collision.
Roy's African quest is for a particular “scavenger-predator” which must “perish by [his] own hand”. The Stork represents his self-defined “badness” which is a product of being born a “genetic disaster” in a “concentration camp for the poor” on Edinburgh's edges. “The first thing I learned,” he says, “was tae fling a stane.” The aimless boredom of “schemie” life has, he adds, prepared him well for being in a coma. More soberly, it bred a desire to force people, often with sexual violence, to recognise who he is: “My name is Roy Strang … All I’m looking for is a bit of respect.”
Roy's respect comes from the collective power of the “cashies”: relatively affluent, bright and stylish “top boys” who go to the “fitba” strictly for the violence. That violence builds towards the rape, and subsequent acquittals, and is described with exhilarating and disgusting force. This is the genesis and core of the novel but Welsh weaves into it his merry imperialist hunters’ yarn, and comic-grotesque visits from Roy's family, with their football gossip and James Bond theme songs.
Marabou Stork Nightmares is about power which, as someone tells Roy, “always goes on and on until it finds its limits”. Welsh's aim is to acquaint both personal and political power with some limits. Posters for the Zero Tolerance campaign, including “MALE ABUSE OF POWER IS A CRIME”, introduce Roy to his. He has grown up defined by such abuse; the sexual abuse of his family and the economic abuses of power. While political precision barbs Welsh's writing, he avoids neat moralising and understands Roy's resort to “psychic defence” against “loathsome reality”.
Welsh's gifts as a writer are too capacious for cultishness. Similarly, while his writing has very fine edges, it is a full-bodied substantial thing too. Marabou Stork Nightmares is a wonderful success: a funny, cleverly composed, genuinely exciting and assured leap of a novel.
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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 punk who switches brains with a newborn baby, is particularly ingenious; it satirizes political correctness when the baby cusses and begs his new-age mother for a juicy steak.
Some of the stories, however, are less fantastic than graphically realistic. For instance, the irony of “Eurotrash” is particularly hard-edged. The main character, Euan, who begins the story emphatically stating: “I was anti-everything and everyone,” later lapses in his antipathy when he is sucked into an inescapable love-triangle with Christina and Richard that is reminiscent of Sartre's No Exit. Welsh's comic stories usually begin and end in the murky depths of dissolution, where even the most dramatic plot-twist is no surprise.
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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 (“Disnae Matter”); a boozy argument between two professors over beer erupts into violence and lands them in jail (“Two Philosophers”); a young man who takes an acid trip during a lightning storm finds himself in the body of a newborn baby, with hilarious consequences (“The Acid House”).
One of the best pieces included in this volume is Welsh's raucous and mordantly funny novella A Smart Cunt. The story brings together elements of slapstick, existentialism, and slice-of-life realism to present an uproarious portrait of a garrulous Glaswegian as he wanders among the dropouts, drag queens, and other denizens of the city's lower-middle-class housing tracts. As in his stories, Welsh's huge affection for his characters illuminates this marginal culture in complex and constantly surprising ways.
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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 dull, Austen imitations to slick (and sick) set-pieces. This cocktail of fiction and reality, warped by the world of drugs, is typical: nothing stands still in Welsh's speeding world.
He only slowly drops hints of what might be going on. In the second story, “Fortune's Always Hiding,” Welsh gradually pulls far-apart lives together through a prescription-drugs scandal involving corporations and governments. Hard nuts who just say yes to drugs meet limbless victims of these other (more sinister) drugs to wreak revenge. In the third, “The Undefeated,” there is another meeting of addled, loved-up minds as Heather, escaping her husband, finds a new life under the strobes with Lloyd.
There is a party, not political, manifesto in all this:
You had to party harder than ever … Political sloganeering and posturing meant nothing; you had to celebrate the joy of life in the face of all those grey forces and dead spirits who controlled everything.
It's a world where even football hooligans hug and make-up. Welsh recreates this lively world with buzzing prose: “… his body bubbling and flowing in all ways to the roaring bass-lines and the rearing dub plates”. Then there's the comedown and “suspended lack of animation”. He knows the “manic, desperately defiant way of the humiliated and defeated”. It's more devolutionary than revolutionary: the chapters offer roll calls of regional accents as Welsh unearths other, alternative lives.
But if the swagger of these stories is authentic and honest, it can also be coarse and crude. Ecstasy cuts both ways; amoral, it brings out everything previously brushed under the carpet, good or bad. There is a lot of bad; but in showing the perversions and pornography of ordinary life, the dirt and desperation of drug-taking, the tenderness behind it all is also revealed. The love eventually outlasts the chemicals; as Lloyd, the loveable pagan-rogue of the last story says, “love's no jist for weekenders”. Welsh is a chilling writer who still manages to be somehow heartwarming: his is more than pulp fiction.
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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 familiar to Welsh's readers, but the wit that he brought to his characters’ truncated world of “shiteing,” “pishing,” “shagging,” and endless pharmacology in his first book is, at this low voltage, juvenile and staged. The first story “Lorraine Goes to Livingston” is the tale of a romance writer who discovers her husband's porn habit and in revenge incorporates its details into her writing—her star-crossed lovers become converts to bestiality. The story's subplot has a necrophiliac game-show host who indulges his desires by repaying NHS trust debts in return for the use of a hospital morgue.
Welsh has never been a subtle writer, but this is satire as head-butt. Running through the story, and indeed through the book, is a polemic about the redemptive power of the eponymous drug, (“Glen's pill was kicking in … all the joy for everything good was in him, though he could see all the bad things in Britain …”), which is employed as a panacea for bigotry and psychosis of all kinds. If the long-term effects of Ecstasy include writing stories as charmless as this one, it would seem to add weight to the arguments of the anti-drug lobby.
The second story, told primarily in the misogynistic monologue of a cartoon West Ham fan, is, if anything, worse. Dubbed “A Corporate Drug Romance,” it introduces the victim of a Thalidomidetype disaster who, in league with a stray Baader-Meinhof activist lops off the arms of the drug company executive's baby, before joining forces with our Neanderthal narrator to chainsaw limbs from the drug's British distributor.
In both of these sicko tales (the third story, “The Undefeated,” could easily have been lifted from his previous book) Welsh seems at pains to broaden his frame of reference to state-of-the-nation parody. His grotesquerie fails not simply because of the absence of humour but because his characters are never more than ciphers in a schoolboy's class war. Once Welsh wanders from his home patch his characters are less observed than disdained. If, for example, we are really to believe that Wolverhampton-born Spike's “view of enjoyment” is strictly confined to “tipping Bank's down his neck” and “Molyneux's North Bank on a Saturday” you might think that Welsh or his publishers would be bothered to check how to spell these twin pleasures (Molineux, Banks's).
The author has been properly praised for giving a fictional voice to a particular disenfranchised population: non-Festival-going Edinburgh. He now seems set on elevating these local prejudices into a world view. The philosophy with which his housing project heroes confront the iniquities of their lives, which could be distilled into their mantra “Yis cunts yis”, might have provoked a few laddish laughs first time round, but it's not a lot on which to base a writing career.
Welsh's books since Trainspotting depend for their sheen on their sense of exclusivity. They are not, of course, written or published for c∗∗∗∗ like me, who read books, but for “all the good people—you know who you are” as the dedication to Ecstasy has it; for “the posses in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, London, Manchester, Newcastle, New York, San Francisco and Munich”. Perhaps the gathered posses will find their Poet Laureate on form in these stories, but I doubt it. Even people who don’t buy novels know when they are being short-changed.
Welsh was once quoted as saying that he thought “work a horrible thing. I think it should be avoided at all costs”. It's a pity that so promising a writer should apparently have taken that maxim to heart. On the evidence of Ecstasy, Irvine Welsh has moved seamlessly from “cultural activist” to “marketing exercise”. Don’t believe the hype.
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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 hurry and in ill humour.
The new book consists of three pieces, each the length of a novella, each figured half-ironically as some sort of “romance”. The first, titled “Lorraine Goes to Livingston,” is a puerile and pointless satire on what it fancies to be London life. It concerns Rebecca Navarro, a predictably fat, cloying, middle-class writer of more traditional romances, who is made to suffer a stroke; in hospital, she makes improbable best friends with a young nurse down from Welsh's territory. Together they uncover her husband's interest in pornography and prostitutes, and their revenge is to turn her work-in-progress into a saga of bestiality—the joke being that while this should appeal to her husband's tastes, it will be rejected by the publisher and topple him into penury. The pantomime subplot introduces the necrophiliac host of a television show which “sorts” treats for kids, who makes large donations to the hospital trust in exchange for access to its dead bodies. When the ruined husband is knocked down and killed by a car, a further indignity therefore awaits him.
The silliness of the conception is matched by the sloppiness of the execution. A second nurse, Yvonne, is seen “greedily devouring the last two pages” of one of Mrs Navarro's novels; some hours later, interrupted while “still engrossed” in it, she is seen “earmarking a page”. This same nurse is chatted up at a club by a man, of whom it is pointedly said that “He didn’t know her name, all he knew of her was that she was Lorraine's friend”, with the line “Yvonne, innit?” This failure to follow the simplest of his own narrative instructions ties in with Welsh's declared loathing of work, something that he casually transmits to NHS nursing staff, “looking after decaying, incontinent people who had degenerated into sagging, wheezing, brittle, twisted parodies of themselves”—not the only point in the book where an ugly, antisocial fit convulses whatever consciousness the narrative happens to be passing through.
The horrors of the second tale, “Fortune's Always Hiding,” are spread through several countries but laid on with inexhaustible relish. It charts the revenge of a young woman, born with no arms, on the company which sold her mother an untested drug. First, in league with a similarly handicapped German terrorist, she kidnaps and dismembers the baby son of the Bavarian manufacturer; then, with a psychopathic West Ham fan—brought in to add his own weight of rapes, assaults etc—she chain-saws off the arms of the drug's British distributor.
There are sporadic attempts, in these two stories, to reproduce Welsh's great gift for his own vernacular in other idioms: a Somerset drawl, a page of Brummie, the peculiar hybrid of a Cockney doing “a Jock accent”. The result is to litter the stage with dummies. The reader of Trainspotting was drawn to identify with even the most depraved of its characters; but none of these tales’ token beings engages the sympathies for as much as a moment. The plots masquerade as dramas of revenge, but the satisfaction is all Welsh's, working up hatred and devising grue-some punishments for characters he has hardly bothered to animate or differentiate.
The Edinburgh vernacular itself is restored for the final tale, “The Undefeated,” as long as the narration is in the hands of Lloyd from Leith. He would have been at home in Trainspotting, and one scene of a drinking session in a bowls club has the boisterous comic momentum of the best of that book. But this being by contrivance a “romance”, Lloyd alternates with Heather, a bored housewife from Dunfermline, whose inner life, conveyed in standard English, is by comparison a short-winded, shrunken thing, a trickling complaint against her husband's neglect of foreplay. Their integration in a single tale, and their union at the end of it, is achieved only by demand of the structure—and by E.
If Ecstasy has anything positive to propose, it is about the redemptive effects of the eponymous drug. Lloyd and Heather come together when they are both “E’d up” in a club, a scene duplicated exactly between protagonists in each of the otherwise disparate tales. Clubbing and drug-taking have a political dimension for Welsh:
you had to celebrate the joy of life in the face of all those grey forces and dead spirits who controlled everything, who fucked with your head [my italics] and livelihood anyway, if you weren’t one of them. You had to let them know … you were still alive.
We might object that these fine words are voiced by a character who has just pocketed a hefty bribe from a necrophiliac; but we are to understand that daily identity, one's role in the world “of trivial, banal oppressions” is left behind at the doors of the club: “We shared an insight and intimacy that nobody who hadn’t done this in this environment could ever know about”; “What you learn when people open up like this is that we are all”—romantic novelists, nurses, handicapped murderers, queer-bashers—“basically the same.” And indeed, when their pills “kick in”, the chemical feelings and chemical speech of all Welsh's instant heroes and heroines are shown to be interchangeable.
This sameness is a crippling assumption for any novelist, in particular one in search of diversification, to take on; yet Welsh seems increasingly prepared to embrace it. “I just wanted tae blaw ma muck in [Nicole] Fenwick, then split from the whole depressing scene” (Roy Strang in Marabou Stork Nightmares); “I just wanted to blow my fucking load and get on out of there” (Dave in “Fortune's Always Hiding”); “all ah wanted tae dee was tae blaw ma muck and git the fuck oot ay thair” (“Nukes” in “The Undefeated”); “that selfish bastard Lloyd did fuck all except blow his load and roll over” (Heather in “The Undefeated”). Until Irvine Welsh can extricate himself from this community, and apply himself more generously to the task, his reader will feel at once put upon and excluded.
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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 of feminist propaganda is effected by a transcendent night at the Manchester Hacienda and a handful of Doves.
OK: let's concede that a sudden release of serotonin and dopamine from the brain's neurotransmitters creates a kind of empathy and physical relaxation that you don’t get from any other recreational drug. Let's also accept that such a generation-in-Ecstasy might well smash social boundaries—of class, gender, knowledge, expertise, emotion—as a result of this specific hedonism, this swedge at the doors of perception. In this light, Welsh's world can be seen to be as traditional as Jane Eyre. It provides useful narratives of the self for a constituency that needs to be as informed about drug choices as career choices (both flexibly defined).
Lloyd's Glasgow acid-trip in the third story of Ecstasy, “The Undefeated,” is a fine, syntax-shattering example of the genre. But before he flies “right intae the sun” (from the middle of Great Western Road) Welsh makes his protagonist give a lucidly sociological defence of club culture: “because we are social, collective fucking animals and we need to be together and have a good time”.
Pleasure incapable “government cunts” want everyone else “tae feel guilty, tee stey in wee boxes and devote their worthless lives tee rearing the next generation of factory fodder or sodgers or dole moles for the state”. Desire against the system: Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, your tickets have just come up again. But what's wrong with such sententiousness? From a man who prefers the term “cultural activist” to “writer”, Welsh's psychotropic polemics should be no surprise.
If Welsh is a cultural activist, there is another sense in which he is not “writer”. Some wags have dubbed the Trainspotting phenomenon, book and film, as “Carry On Heroin”. And it's true that Welsh has a yuk-yuk love of farce and stereotype. The first two tales in Ecstasy turn fluffy romantic novelists into Sadean extremists; they sketch scheming capitalists and virtuous terrorists with the same cartoon strokes, and make an attempt at Cockney-wanker consciousness that owes more to Viz than Richard Allen's skinhead tales. Apart from the last tale—a late—1990s rerun of Trainspotting, with the metallic allure of heroin replaced by the collective buzz of E, but with all the novel's richness of Scottish social description—Welsh's literary rushes are beginning to wear off. If his implied readership is deriving more profundity from chemicals, pals and dance floor motion than anything else (certainly Good Books) then his join-the-dots Ecstasy style can be excused. But it's thin stuff, if you’re not inside the bliss-out.
Yet for all the militant hedonism, the “spiritual communion”, that MDMA seems to justify in Welsh's work, there is a pitiless downside. In Ecstasy, bodies and minds may be “loved-up” for “skingames” but they are also hate-ridden and flesh-loathing, with extreme pain following extreme joy in the flick of a few pages.
The grand guignol spattered throughout this book—the dismemberment of both an industrialist's baby and the industrialist himself; the multi-orifice necrophilia practised by a West Country TV star; various bloody anal/oral couplings with rent boys, sheep, perforated melons, and a woman called “Poisonous Cunt”—is Welsh's ultimate shock-tactic, deployed from Trainspotting's lavatory scene onwards: liberal-baiting at its most extreme. Certainly, this is the symbolism of an age in which brutal mnemonics strafe the body—HIV, DNA, BSE—rending it with fearful holes and gaps, making us seem like malfunctioning meat machines, easily dismantled. When the edges of the self blur and fizz, all manner of corporal phantoms fly out from the body's recesses.
Yet I’m still saddened (or at least perplexed) by the proximity of individual sadism and collective joy in Welsh's work. And I’m still suspicious that this may come from his own masculine pathology, a kind of mega-lad lurking in the shadows beyond the dance floor, muttering away: “I’m no fucking fooled here.” When we finally hear some female voices writing about a rave culture (and, to coin a phrase, where the fuck are they?), will they display the same fundamental body hatred as Irvine Welsh?
But you could read the merciless thumpings and joyous humpings—the excretions and eviscerations, all the physical extremism of Ecstasy—as a kind of desperate resistance tactic. As the French thinker Paul Virilio has recently written, the human body and its interiors-psychic and biological—are the last territories available on earth for capitalism to commodify and colonise. Welsh has often done a Kelmanesque rap, claiming his writing as the suppressed voice of the “working class”. Yet the working class don’t “work” these days: they serve. Run through the job categories in Ecstasy: nurse, manager, executive, writer, TV personality, drug dealer: everyone an entrepreneur of the self, coerced into giving pleasing “service” one way or other.
For Welsh, the carnival of rave culture contains the only possible resistance to a post-industrial society that compels us to exploit and manage our hearts—that is the unmanageable heart, both killer and caresser, body and soul, organ and spirit. It's chemical Romanticism, without a doubt; and Welsh is never more absurdly affecting than when his characters get all gooey. “Dinnae ever be feared ah love, man,” says Ibiza—man Ally to Lloyd. “That's the way they divide.”
Yet does Love mean the end of that search for the Buzz-in violence, in sex, in hi-jinks, in drugs, in music—that Welsh counterposed against all the other pathetic “life choices” at the beginning of Trainspotting? Does it mean satisfaction, rest, harmony? It may actually be more radical to turn down the flames of want. The word “spiritual” pops up enough in this book to suggest that Welsh may be aware of that ascetic option. Ultimately, I wonder whether the mainstream consumer capitalism Welsh kicks against may in fact be what incites the Buzz: the system that turns us into internal desiring machines in the first place. On top of that contradiction sits this book, and the whole Welsh multi-media industry.
If Herbert Marcuse is to make a comeback, maybe his idea of “repressive tolerance” should be at the front of the queue. Welsh is a business-school graduate, and we should make his recently expressed disaffection with a literary career as the signal of a real change of direction. Anyone who makes that much legitimate money from drugs has a shining future on the capitalist heights. Irvine Welsh as the Richard Branson of the 21st century? Now that would be swedgin’.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802
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 schemes” of Edinburgh is postindustrial unemployment and the humiliation of a socialist Scotland within a Tory-ruled UK. He seldom confronts this political deadlock explicitly, but when he does, his anatomy of curdled idealism and hope is unsparing. In the novella A Smart Cunt (part of the story collection The Acid House, published in England in 1994), a left-wing militant tries to recruit Brian (Welsh's most autobiographical protagonist). “I’m thinking, what can I do, really do for the emancipation of working people in this country, shat on by the rich, tied into political inaction by servile reliance on a reactionary, moribund and yet still unelectable Labour Party?,” muses Brian. “The answer is a resounding fuck all. Getting up early to sell a couple of [political pamphlets] in a shopping centre is not my idea of the best way to chill out. … I think I’ll stick to drugs to get me through the long, dark night of late capitalism.”
In Welsh's world, even nonravers are on drugs, literally (state-sanctioned chemicals like alcohol or tranquilizers) or metaphorically (TV, videos, computer games, the adrenaline rush of football violence). But Welsh—an ex-junkie and still a fervent raver—is mostly preoccupied with illegal forms of raising and razing consciousness. The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, published in England in 1995, and the forthcoming Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances largely concern the rave scene's drugs of choice: MDMA, LSD, and “jellies” (slang for the downer Temazepam). And Trainspotting focuses on Edinburgh's heroin subculture of the mid '80s, when Pakistani smack had glutted the UK market, becoming, for thousands of ordinary people mired in unemployment, a cheaper means to oblivion than alcohol.
Welsh captures this moment by contrasting the “honest” junkies Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy with their mate Begbie, a sociopath who boasts that he “wouldnae poison ma body with that shite” while consuming gallons of booze, smoking like a chimney, and finding his own twisted form of release in gratuitous violence. But Welsh's junkies aren’t just renegades from the “hard man” mentality Begbie represents: they’re also in revolt against Scotland's “work hard, play hard” regime. Welsh describes the smackhead as a “closet romantic,” someone who refuses to accept life's limitations. It is from this one among many of Welsh's stray insights that director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge (the team responsible for the 1994 film Shallow Grave) launch their movie. Putting a mischievous spin on the slogan “just say no,” their version of Trainspotting fanfares heroin as a romantic renunciation of mediocrity.
In a monologue superimposed over an exhilarating chase scene after a bungled shoplifting. Renton (Ewan McGregor) sarcastically itemizes the meaningless options available to the good citizen. “Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. … Choose your future. Choose life.” Then the punch line: “Well, I chose not to choose life. … And the reasons? Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin.” This is up-front stuff, and before you’ve caught your breath, Boyle cuts to perhaps the most true-to-Welsh aspect of the movie: a paean to self-poisoning. “People think heroin is all about death and misery and despair. … What they forget is the pleasure of it. … After all, we’re not fucking stupid.” The scene is the glamorously squalid council flat (the grot and grunge have a glossy, hyperreal feel) where Renton and his pals cook up and inject. The camera clings to their pasty faces, screwed up in need and anticipation, relief and rapture. Allison (Susan Vidler), a single mother (her baby crawls happily among filth and comatose bodies), is shot up by Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) in a parody of sexual penetration: as her face spasms with the rush, she gasps. “That's better than any meat injection, better than any fucking cock in the world.” Renton's voice-over attempts to quantify the experience: “Take your best orgasm and multiply it by a thousand.” (This is inflation: in the book, it's only by twenty.)
Predictably, Trainspotting has been accused of glamorizing drugs, and indeed the film is riveting in precise ratio to the extent that it glosses over the tawdry torpor of the druggie lifestyle. Welsh's writing gets round the banality of drug use, and the dreariness of the environment that the junkies seek to “obliviate,” by the vividness of his dialogue—rich with slang and expletives, and mostly in dialect. Toning down the verbals (Welsh-speak is hard for non-Scots), Boyle vibes up the visuals. This and his film's sheer pace conspire to make its wasters and psychos appear dynamic and charismatic, people you’d love to hang out with.
Speaking to Premiere magazine, Boyle was surprisingly candid about the liberties he took. Researching the movie, he “met a lot of real junkies. That was really, really depressing. Suddenly there didn’t seem any real energy to build the film on other than the book. When you meet the real things it's like all the life has been taken away and there's nothing left but victims. … It's a debilitating experience rather than something that gives energy and life.” In the novel, Renton is plain, zit-plagued, and unhealthy: as played by McGregor, he's dead sexy. And though Boyle knew that “real junkies … [are] quite chubby,” he made McGregor shed 28 pounds in order to achieve “the stick thin, artificial version … that is the conceived idea of a heroin addict.”
The fakeness of Trainspotting is both what's problematic and what's most engaging about it. Breaking with the gritty, quasi-documentary feel we’ve come to expect from British cinema (Ken Loach, Mike Leigh), Boyle opts instead for a kind of social surrealism. Struggling to kick, Renton procures some opium suppositories to ease his withdrawal pangs. (The dodgy-dealer cameo is played by Welsh himself.) But his habit has caused chronic constipation, which, minus heroin, wears off, and he's forced to relieve himself in a filthy public toilet. Realizing too late that he's also voided his precious narcotic orbs, Renton plunges his arms into the blocked toilet, then literally dives down the bowl. Suddenly he's swimming through a beatific subaquascape to the soothing Mantovani-esque strains of Brian Eno's “Deep Blue Day,” and triumphantly scooping his lost gems from the rocky seabed.
This amniotic vision was probably inspired by a passage in the book that imagines heroin as an “internal sea,” the only trouble being that “this beautiful ocean carries with it loads ay poisonous flotsam and jetsam … once the ocean rolls out, it leaves the shite behind, inside ma body.” Elsewhere, though, Trainspotting's visual brio subverts the book's meaning. Having successfully kicked, Renton confronts the real challenge—coping with the dreariness of unaltered consciousness. Keeping him on a close leash, his parents take him to the pub. But Boyle and Hodge deal with this supposed tedium by speeding up the film, so that the pub's middle-aged bingo players whizz around the inert Renton: the filmmakers can't let boredom be boring.
Departing from the book in the film's last segment, Boyle and Hodge give us a brief vignette of a London rave that hints that the heroin scene of a few years earlier was but a prequel to Ecstasy culture. This interlude seems like a nod to Welsh's reputation as the “rave author”: indeed its paean to a new, Ecstasy-sponsored spirit of androgyny was probably inspired by Marabou Stork Nightmares. Another aspect of rave—its surrogate sense of community and belonging as a reaction against Tory-imposed social fragmentation—isn’t spelled out, but can be read against another key sequence (also absent from the book) that shows Renton thriving as a London real estate agent at the height of the quick-killing economic boom of the late '80s. Describing his pleasure in scamming clients with dodgy apartment conversions. Renton paraphrases one of Margaret Thatcher's most infamous proclamations: “There's no such thing as society.”
Renton's buddies, too, have come up with their own nefarious take on “enterprise culture”: Sick Boy is a pimp and a pusher, Begbie's done an armed robbery. Thatcher's illegitimate children, they embroil Renton in a massive heroin deal. Taking self-help and initiative one step further. Renton rips off his homeboys and absconds with the loot. The movie ends as he strides into a bright tomorrow, the camera close-up on his maniacally grinning face as he recites a mantra of affirmation: “I’m cleaning up and moving on, going straight and choosing life,” followed by an incantatory list of all the things (“indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by”) that he’d earlier repudiated. Welsh's book, though, ends on a more ambivalent, tentative note. Renton screws over his mates precisely in order to burn his boats: he can never return to Edinburgh for fear of Begbie's retribution. “There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be.”
Still, both book and film share a blind spot on the creepy subtext of Renton's escape. Not only has he broken the blood-brother ties of his surrogate clan, he has paid for his one-way ticket out of the proletariat with the proceeds of a heroin deal, thereby further enmiring thousands of his erstwhile fellow addicts. Both these betrayals reinforce the proposition that “there is no such thing as society.” In the absence of any hope of collective amelioration, the only way out is class defection. For those who remain behind, drugs—taking them, selling them—is all that's left in “the long dark night of late capitalism.”
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1510
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.
Trainspotting was truly an incendiary debut, a work of glowering, malevolent humor that stands comparison with the best of Burroughs and Genet for both its surface credibility as a report from hell and its sure grasp of infernal politics and anthropology. Less a plotted novel than a set of loosely linked improvisations, it follows the fortunes of a group of strung-out drifters and wide boys in the poorest “schemes” (projects) of Edinburgh, where heroin addiction and AIDS run at the highest levels in Europe.
What distinguishes it from other novels of low life is partly the sheer brilliance of the writing—beautifully individuated dialogue that snaps characters instantly into life, effortless realization of locale, unflagging dramatic invention—and partly also an unusually volatile intelligence that continually startles you with its sudden swerves between wit, rage, cynicism, and unexpected tenderness.
The episodes range in tone from scabrously funny (the travails of a junkie trying to retrieve an opium suppository accidentally deposited into an overflowing pub latrine) to the drenchingly painful (domestic violence, squalid deaths from drugs and HIV). Most of them have in common a quality they share with a line of writing going back at least as far as Sade: a relish for situations where the processes of destruction and disintegration are likely to be drastically speeded up. Violently antithetical entities are continually brought into dangerous proximity with each other: food and excrement, babies and junkies, blades and flesh. The impulse corresponds to what the Greeks called sparagmos: Dionysian rending or tearing apart. Needless to say, it has to do with reinvigoration, and although this part of the cycle seldom makes its way into the narrative itself, its implicit presence accounts for the extraordinary surging energy given off by practically every page.
As if that weren’t enough, there's a second, countervailing mythic impulse at work: something very un-pagan, very puritanical and Scottish, namely guilt. In each of his three books, Welsh's main protagonists follow essentially the same psychic itinerary. First, absolute surrender to the most primitive instincts for gratification, whether through narcotics, sex, or aggression-usually under the influence of a bona fide psychopath (a type at which Welsh excels); then, at a certain point in the escalating mayhem that ensues, a sudden realization that they live in a moral as well as a bodily universe. At this point a peculiar kind of guilty self-disgust kicks in. Far from pulling them back, it seems to drive them to even more fiendish depths-murderous assault in the wonderful (and charmingly titled) novella A Smart Cunt (from The Acid House), brutal gang rape in Marabou Stork Nightmares—as though they need to give concrete form to what in another time might have been called their Sense of Sin before they can expiate it, which they tend to do with a final convulsion of self-destroying behavior. Publicly they get away with their crimes—the trial scenes in Trainspotting and Marabou Stork Nightmares, with their horribly plausible travesties of justice, give a whole new meaning to the term “scot-free”—but this merely intensifies their private guilt. Brian, the eponymous “Smart Cunt,” goes out of his way to get badly beaten up after his fatal attack on a blind man who makes the mistake of being mildly irritating. And Roy Strang, the hero (if that's the word) of Marabou Stork Nightmares, attempts suicide.
This latter is a more consciously “composed” work than its predecessors—elaborately constructed, and focusing on a single character. Two years into a coma brought on by his suicide attempt, Roy Strang moves back and forth between three converging narratives: his life story up to the suicide attempt, the present-time efforts of various visitors (including the woman he raped) to rouse him from his coma, and an extended, half-elective fantasy about a hunt for an obnoxious “scavenger-predator,” the marabou stork. Transitions between the narratives are managed by typographical devices, which are efficient, if somewhat crude.
The fantasy stork hunt takes place in Africa and rehashes in hallucinatory terms the key events of Roy's childhood (part of which was spent in South Africa, where he first set eyes on a small group of marabou storks attacking a colony of flamingos) and his adolescence back in Scotland, where he joined a gang of soccer casuals who terrorized the regular fans. By metaphorical transference, the hunt for the stork thus becomes a hunting down of his own predatory persona. The passages are written in a pastiche Boys’ Own Adventure style (“-Gosh Sandy, you’re a Hungry Horace today, I remarked”), a surprisingly obvious move for a writer as original as Welsh (think of Burroughs's pulp-fiction send-ups in his own tropical fantasias). They’re too throwaway to matter much, but they open the book and they’re a weak, or at least creaky, or gimmicky, note in an otherwise powerful piece of work.
The meat of the book is in the realistic sections, with their superb vignettes of family life, office routine, and mindless brutality. These portray an intelligent, lively child warped by his family's penchant for incest and criminality, as well as its rock-bottom social status, into a vindictive thug for whom violence gradually becomes the sole means of pleasure and self-expression. The scenes of violence, though never easy to stomach, are redeemed from the banality of the merely graphic by a double perspective that enables Roy both to convey the compulsive thrill of “swedging” (fighting) and at the the same time subject it to a rigorous analysis, part moral, part zoological. The central metaphor of the storks attacking the flamingos is cleverly deployed and evolved in this regard, coming full circle at the end, where the primal image of a stork with the tornoff head of a flamingo stuffed in its beak merges into the final image of Roy as victim, when the woman he rapes gets her gruesome, Bobbittesque revenge.
Flawed as it is by the fantasy passages, and by a slightly callow section where Roy discovers Ecstasy and learns that all his life he's been “running away from sensitivity, from feelings, from love,” Marabou Stork Nightmares remains a disturbing, funny, and surprisingly touching book. Some of the characters—Roy's fascistic but curiously endearing father, his haplessly oversexed sister, the psychopath Lexo—are etched into existence with an almost Dickensian flourish and vitality of line. The dialogue is as preternaturally on the mark as ever. And the language in general, moving rapidly between standard English and various intensities of Scots vernacular (don’t be put off, you soon get the hang of it), is a sustained display of contemporary prose at its most supple and expressive. It doesn’t lend itself well to quotation, the effect being one of cumulative power rather than lyric or epigrammatic sparkle, but just for a sample of its textures, here's Strang senior trying to steer his son away from his football (“fitba”) hooligan pals:
-Like ah sais, he droned on,-ye could lose yir joab. They dinnae grow oan trees nowadays, eh. Specially no in computers. Thing ay the future.
-N whit fir eh? Whit fir? Ah’m askin ye! Fir they fuckin casual bampots. Ah mean, it's no as if thir even interested in the fitba these cunts. Ah see yis aw at Easter Road. It's aw designer labels wi these cunts, like ah sais, fuckin designer labels.
-Aw aye, ye kin shite aw ye want tae, but ahve read aw aboot it. In the Evening News. Fuckin mobile phones, the loat. Re tryin tae tell ays that's aw rubbish, eh?
Ah’m askin ye!
-Aye. It's shite. Pure shite.
You don’t need to know what a bampot is to hear the life crackling in this. And what more could one ask of a piece of fiction?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434
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 also been a sell-out play and a box office-breaking film. The paperback version is hitting the bestseller lists in the U.S., alongside universal raves for the British movie. And Welsh's subsequent works, a drug-themed short story collection. The Acid House, and Marabou Stork Nightmares, a novel about the mind of a man in a coma, along with Trainspotting recently held all top three spots on the Scottish bestseller lists. Hard on the heels of these books are the drug-related novellas in Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance, published in Britain in June—to disparaging reviews, to be sure, but still lapped up by youthful readers.
These sudden popular literary thirsts are inevitably stoked by a bottom-line-minded publishing business. But they are also the sign of something more profound. Of late, British fiction has been dominated by the colonial school (Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro), something of a reaction, perhaps, to the ingrained white, middle class-itis of British letters. The current broad recognition for Scottish literature—especially for Welsh, Booker Prize-winning James Kelman and Janice Galloway, 1994 recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ highly prestigious E.M. Forster Prize—is surely part of the same yearning for something fresh.
What's seductively new about Welsh and a growing band of compatriots is that they’re giving literary voice not only to Scottish working class youth but to an entire disaffected, unemployed, drug-and music-obsessed generation. The way Welsh tells it, these guys see drug-taking as a viable alternative to working or marrying and having a family—a slightly different route to staving off the sense that life's basically “boring and futile” and that “society cannae be changed tae make it significantly better.”
In a manifesto of sorts, one character declares it's better to take drugs than choose “mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing [expletive] junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away [expletive] and [expletive] yersel in a home, a total [expletive] embarrassment tae the selfish [expletive] brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. … Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the [expletive] cannae handle that, it's their [expletive] problem.”
Of course, this rebel attitude is at least as old as the parable of the Prodigal Son. And Welsh is certainly only the latest exponent of what one might call British bad boy literature—from the antiestablishment, anti-heroic angry young men of the 1950s (Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine and Stan Barstow) to contemporary misanthropes like Martin Amis and Will Self, who thumb their noses at everyone in sight.
But Welsh's raw, bleakly funny drug addicts are also rebellious in a uniquely Scottish manner. Though Welsh occasionally writes in third-person standard English for some authorial distance, he mostly lets his characters—Rents, Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie and the rest—tell their stories in their own colorful language.
In fact, their exuberance and humor, their apathy and pain, are the only story here. There's no lofty judgment-calling. (And this is surely what struck a chord with British youth.) If Welsh has a message, it's simply this: Drugs can give you pleasure—heroin in Trainspotting and ecstasy in Ecstasy—a pleasure that is all too hard to find in life where boredom and pain are the norm. “Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by 20, and you’re still … miles off the pace,” Rents says of heroin. But then you have to pay the price.
So clearly does Welsh spell out the cost of drug-taking, you start to sense the outrage behind his apparently noncritical tale-telling. Stealing, lying, pimping, selling what you love, humiliating yourself, losing friends—Welsh charts all the classic druggie acts. One girl addict's baby dies; crib death is suggested, but the cause is surely neglect. A pusher loses a leg to gangrene. And a gross but very funny scene, in which Rents fishes in an excrement-packed toilet for two opium suppositories he has inadvertently expelled, serves to underline the addict's obsessive self-absorption.
Indirectly, Welsh tries to pin some of the blame for individual drug-taking—and that includes binge-drinking, which is epidemic in Scotland, and drink-fueled fighting—on the emptiness and cruelty in people's lives: the incest in one girl's family, unemployment, boredom and a chorus of disapproving “auld wifies,” patronizing Englishmen, officious welfare types and various exemplars of the stern Calvinism that has driven many a Scot to off-the-wall humor, if not to more crazed behavior.
Less convincingly, Welsh also goes after corrupt institutions. In Ecstasy's second novella, “Fortune's Always Hiding,” he presents a fictionalized account of a real-life 1970s horror story: the marketing of a pain-killer for pregnant women (he calls it Tenazadrine), which caused serious birth defects in their offspring. In Welsh's eyes, it seems, the pusher in the corporate suit is a bigger villain than the one on the street.
All of which makes for powerful reportage. But is it art?
I have no doubt that the vibrant Trainspotting will always have a place somewhere in the history of literature, thanks to its funny dialogue and its graphic depiction of the druggie life, though it may be somewhat lower on the list of enduring classics than its present showing on the commercial charts. Ecstasy is another matter. What might have been flaws in Trainspotting that were somehow transformed by that work's stylish presentation—an inability to portray women, puerile observations about life, naive politics—are in Ecstasy an embarrassment.
The first novella, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston: A Rave and Regency Romance, features a female romance writer and her pornography-obsessed husband, a Somerset-accented necrophiliac and a Scottish nurse. The uncomfortable marriage of youthful rave culture with Monty Python-esque farce is only made worse by flat, chunky writing.
“Fortune's Always Hiding: A Corporate Drug Romance,” in which Dave, a Cockney burglar, and Samantha, an armless Tenazadrine victim, plan vicious revenge on the corporate executives who did Samantha wrong, offers little more than some tense Hollywood-style plotting.
As for “The Undefeated: An Acid House Romance,” one of the few good things I can say is that it warns us of the potentially mind-numbing dangers of experimenting with artificial, ecstasy-induced feelings of love and peace that quickly turn to indifference when the effect of the drug wears off.
But art needs more than public service to come alive.
Part of the problem is that Welsh can't do English culture. The first two novellas highlight his failure to inject life into a variety of British accents: Brummy, Geordie, Cockney, Posh English and Somerset. When he shifts to Scottish dialect in “The Undefeated,” the prose lights up a little. But all three novellas seem hurried, overly self-conscious about their mission to explain drugs and light on the authentic detail that made Trainspotting glow. It doesn’t seem possible that the same author who crowed “take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by 20 …” could also produce the tired-sounding, “Rebecca was having the time of her life at the Forum. The drug was taking her to new heights with the music. She took it easy in the chill-out room, enjoying the waves of MDMA and sounds inside her.”
Perhaps Welsh might consider retiring to his own chill-out room, where he might forget about being an icon and cook up something a little closer to his earlier exuberant prose.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134
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, things aren’t as bad as they sound. Ecstasy is an uneven but funny book, and Welsh is, at times, an amazing writer. If there's a problem, it's Ecstasy, the drug. It just isn’t strange or profound enough, somehow, to inspire the giddy new cult being advertised.
“Lorraine Goes to Livingston,” the opening story, is a lurid, cartoonish trifle. A dirty joke. An invalid romance writer learns of her parasite husband's secret sex life and takes her revenge by writing a filthy novel that scuttles her career. The parody book-within-a-book brims with buggery and bestiality done up in stuffy Victorian prose: “Harcourt had instructed the men to make appropriate adjustments until the anal orifices of the three creatures were positioned at a similar height lined up to meet Denby's engorged member.” This is revue-sketch humor, standard issue, and young British writers never tire of it. The story of Freddy, a necrophiliac talk-show host, runs alongside the main event, then predictably converges with it. Sex on slabs is always good for laughs, but so are banana-peel mishaps. Despite a nice scene of sleazy bonhomie between two gentlemen sex-shop patrons, the story reads like a compulsory sequence in the Angry Young British Satirist Competition.
Somewhere along the way in the story, Welsh trots out his Ecstasy philosophy, putting it into the mouth of a young raver: “Political sloganeering and posturing meant nothing; you had to celebrate the joy of life in all of those grey forces and dead spirits who controlled everything, who fucked with your head and livelihood anyways, if you weren’t one of them.” In context, this manifesto seems oddly earnest, not to mention stale. Welsh bangs the drum of clubland radicalism over and over throughout the book, but it makes a dull thump every time. We’ve heard these claims before; Kerouac made them for Benzedrine and bebop, as has every stoned romantic since. Surely Welsh knows the long and troubled history of Chemical Liberation Theology—and yet he gives us its orthodoxies straight, without a hint of irony or wisdom. He seems too smart for this. It makes you wonder whether he's truly behind this stuff or is merely selling something.
The second novella, “Fortune's Always Hiding,” is the best of the lot, because it's selling nothing. A woman, disfigured at birth by a drug not unlike thalidomide, enlists a loutish soccer thug named Dave to maim the drug's inventor. The far-fetched plot is unnecessary, a gimmick. What makes the story is its abject realism. The beer-swilling, queer-bashing, sports-obsessed Dave is a fascist demon of the streets, truly terrifying. At night he lurches from pub to pub, head-butting strangers, raging at his mates, and stewing over the fortunes of the home team. Welsh, a master of British working-class dialect, plugs us into Dave's psyche through his mouth. The scene where he picks up and batters a young hustler is despicably brilliant, a blast of oral gore. Dave's amoral verbal energy carries you away despite yourself. Mostly, it's a torrent of obscenity, but at moments his vulgar eloquence is touching, as when he praises his crippled girlfriend's beauty: “I felt like I was wasting time whenever I wasn’t looking at her face.”
This novella is a horrific little break-through. Dave, for whom Margaret Thatcher is “old Maggie,” has swallowed all the capitalist poisons and learned to metabolize them as stimulants. He's negative proof of Welsh's rebellious doctrines, a victim of the system turned predator. He doesn’t understand himself, but we do.
The book's closing story, “The Undefeated,” is an experimental fairy tale of love among the druggies. (The experiment is to bring back sixties “zaniness” with a knowing contemporary touch.) Lloyd is a house-music D.J. and a bum for whom the chemical is the political. For him, human beings are “collective fucking animals” who “need to be together and have a good time.” Lloyd's enemies are “government cunts” who want kids like him “tae stay in wee boxes and devote their worthless lives tae rearing the next generation of factory fodder.” When Lloyd isn’t railing against the faceless state, he's stumbling around the streets of Edinburgh, lit on psychedelics. Welsh plays Lloyd's confusion for pathetic comedy, coming up with the finest, most weirdly accurate LSD scene that I’ve ever read: “Ah hate pishing on acid because you never feel like your finished and the distortion of time makes you feel like you’ve been pishing longer than you have and it gets boring …”
Lloyd's inspired, fractured drugalogue—much of it spent in frantic self-calming exercises—is just one track of this two-track story. The other belongs to Heather, a young housewife whose consciousness has not yet been expanded. She moans to her diary about her husband, Hugh, a suffocating Tory dolt who no longer resembles the working-class firebrand Heather fell in love with back in college. When Heather gathers her courage and drops Ecstasy, everything changes, though, and Hugh is history. Welsh writes: “It was like I knew everybody … We shared an insight and an intimacy that nobody who hadn’t done this in this environment could ever know about. It was like we were all together in our own world, a world far away from hate and fear.”
With her dormant self-esteem restored, Heather spreads her psychedelic wings. It's a hackneyed feminist awakening circa the early seventies, and hardly a match for Lloyd's bewildered musings. Welsh the blissy evangelist doesn’t cut it; he's better at characters who are burning out.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3628
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 saying that the Inferno glorifies hell.
Sure, Renton says of shooting up: “Take yir best orgasm? multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace.” But of course he says that: he's a drug addict. He says it on page eleven of the book, when he still values sensation above all else. And the story of the book is the story of putting Renton's statement, which may well be accurate, in perspective. Trainspotting asks the question, This feels good, but is it worth it? It dares to answer that question without phony moralizing or easy glamor. Welsh is able to pull this off because he is at home with irony and comfortable with contradiction. His precisely disheveled style mixes sarcasm and feeling, honesty and escape, and it captures with impressive grace the desperation and the ecstasy of addiction.
Trainspotting consists of a loosely connected string of episodes in the lives of a group of friends—or as Renton puts it, “Nae friends in this game. Jist associates.” The novel is written in heavy Scottish dialect and is narrated by Renton and his friends. Renton, or Rents, as he is usually called, is a dropout of Aberdeen University, where he “was forced to leave midway through the first year after blowing his grant money on drugs and prostitutes.” Simon, Rent's best friend, affectionately known as Sick Boy, is addicted to women and sex: “They call um Sick Boy, no because he's eywis [always] sick wi junk withdrawal, but because he's just one sick cunt.” Spud is the dumbest of the bunch: “Even in his Ma's womb, you would have to define Spud less as a foetus, more as a set of dormant drug and personality problems.” Frank Begbie has the role of the group bully, the one they all love to hate, whose drugs of choice are alcohol and violence. He is indiscriminately cruel, and demands an exacting loyalty from his companions. Friendship with Begbie “is like junk, a habit,” and it's this habit, as much as heroin, that Rent, our hero, must somehow kick.
The inner circle of hell in Trainspotting is Leith, a working-class area of housing projects on Edinburgh's old dockside. Far above this misery sits Edinburgh Castle, a symbol of everything Renton hates: civilization, posh people and, most important, Scotland:
Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can't even pick a decent, vibrant healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat [got]. Ah hate the Scots.
Renton hates the Scots for having been colonized, not the English for colonizing them. The depth of his self-loathing seems limitless and absurd, but it is real. He doesn’t make any conscious connection between this suppressed rage and his own problems; he doesn’t have time, he's too busy getting high or getting angry about more important things, such as people's taste in music or bad movies.
Still, Rent is our hero because he is smarter than his friends, and because, as Begbie puts it, “He's goat [got] style.” (Begbie hates and admires his friend for this, and shortly after making the observation, Begbie fills Rent's beer can, while Rent is asleep, with piss.) Renton's sexy, aloof style is ironic. Always a step back from the situation, even, or especially, in the midst of a crisis, he is forever joking, punning, working the moment. After showing a friend how to shoot up, and then lecturing him to make it the first and last time, Rent explains to us: “Ah said that because ah wis sure the cunt wis gaunnae ask us fir some.” And Welsh is usually right behind Rent, one more step back, revealing the irony of Rent's irony—the pathetic, if entertaining, hypocrisy of the junkie's so-called “brutal honesty.”
One morning, Renton discovers that he's gone to bed with a 14-year-old girl, and finds himself eating breakfast with her parents:
So what is it you do, Mark? the mother asked him.
What he did, at least work-wise, was nothing. He was in a syndicate which operated a giro [government unemployment check] fraud system, and he claimed benefit at five different addresses, one each in Edinburgh, Livingston and Glasgow, two in London, at Shepherd's Bush and Hackney. Defrauding the Government in such a way always made Renton feel virtuous, and it was difficult to remain discreet about his achievements. He knew he had to though, as sanctimonious, self-righteous, nosey bastards were everywhere, just waiting to tip off the authorities. Renton felt that he deserved the money, as the management skills employed to maintain such a state of affairs were fairly extensive, especially for someone struggling to control a heroin habit.
Irony depends upon distance and perspective, and it can work two ways, like an optical illusion: Rent's distance from himself, his alienation, leads him to heroin, but his perspective, his capacity for detachment and self-awareness, is also his only way out. The careful manipulation of perspective is what makes Welsh's writing more than just a catalog of dead baby humor and drug lore. Through his use of vernacular and shifting voices, he stays close enough to his characters to get into their heads, but far enough away to show their self-delusion. He is not afraid to make fun of his subjects, but he doesn’t judge them: he lets them judge themselves. As a result, his ironic style is rarely shallow or just for laughs. It's appropriate, because conversation in hell is charged with irony. When the present is torture, and the future is more of the same, the idea of communication seems faintly ludicrous.
Renton and his motley crew don’t really communicate. They share drugs, swap anecdotes, manipulate each other and fight, with each other and with innocent bystanders. They’ve all been friends since childhood, and although the bonds between them are strong, the relationships linger because they feel stuck with one another. They use the safe haven of friendship to keep the unhappiness, boredom and looming threat of adult responsibility at bay. The term “trainspotting” refers to the depressing British hobby of keeping obsessive notes on the arrival and departure of trains, and it is a metaphor for shooting heroin and the obsessional, hopeless nature of the addict's life.
In the opening scene of the book, Renton watches a video while Sick Boy sinks into withdrawal. Sick Boy wants Renton to help him get to their dealer's apartment. Renton doesn’t want to stop the video, but in the perverse logic of the junkie's world, his lack of interest in helping his friend procure more drugs makes him feel like “a petty, trivial bastard.” When Sick Boy pleads with him, “His eyes seem the size ay fitba's [footballs] n look hostile, yet pleadin at the same time: poignant testimonies to ma supposed betrayal.” Rent knows he's being used, but he can't resist. His dilemma in this scene captures the central themes of the novel: addiction, friendship, betrayal, choice. Renton is easily exploited by Sick Boy's junkie logic because he is as addicted to his friendships as he is to smack. Whether he will have the strength to move on and become his own person, whether he will “betray” his friends and his heroin habit, becomes the single most important question in the book.
This question lends Welsh's episodic story an intermittent narrative drive, and places it in the tradition of the coming-of-age novel. Take away the needles and the accent, and Renton looks like Holden Caulfield, who also was considered offensive and decadent in his day. Although Renton is older and more self-aware, and in many ways Holden is more independent and mature, the two have much in common. They share a taste for degrading behavior, a contempt for phonies, and an inventive way with irony. And like Holden, Renton has a brother who died young and whose death has deeply, unconsciously affected him, and another brother who has disappointed him. (Holden's older brother has sold out to Hollywood; Renton's joins the army and gets killed.) Both heroes are basically smart, depressed, suicidal adolescents; and their journeys chart a course from denial to despair to something like hope. It would be misleading to compare The Catcher in the Rye and Trainspotting too closely—what would Holden make of the idea of shooting heroin into his penis?—but the similarities suggest the essentially traditional nature of Welsh's book.
The tone of Trainspotting is jerky, in-your-face, like its characters’ behavior. The language is rich with dialect and different voices, and at times it is a challenge to follow. A glossary has been provided for American readers, and they will need it. In spite of its style and its subject matter, the book has a familiar, classical shape. With its cast of small timers, loose collection of stories, its tragically fine-tuned attention to detail, and its absorbing sense of place, it actually resembles Dubliners. In one chapter, a family gathering for a wake is interrupted when the corpse begins to sweat and twitch. As it turns out, someone has forgotten to unplug the electric blanket. The chapter reads like a parody of “The Dead” by Quentin Tarantino.
Welsh's language, full of both subtle and abrupt shifts in tone and voice, has a logic that is apparent amidst all the raving and shock tactics. Writing much of the time in a phonetically transcribed dialect, he uses the vernacular in the same complex way he uses irony: to give us access to the raw, inner dimension of his characters’ world while also giving us, through the very difficulty and self-consciousness of his voice, a more detached perspective. The language in Trainspotting is alienating at first, exhilarating once you get the hang of it, and finally poetic in its complications.
One of the most complicated things about the book is that it isn’t written in one voice but in many. Each character has his own syntax, vocabulary and rhythm. Spud punctuates his stories with the insecure tic, “like say.” Sick Boy hears Sean Connery's voice in his head: “Yesh Shimon, I think you may have a shtrong point thair.” Renton likes to finish off a thought by saying “end ay story.” This isn’t just dictation on Welsh's part; it's literary in the best sense, using language at every level to tell a story. In one rare moment of pure description, when Renton and his gang are tormenting a squirrel, Spud, upset by their behavior, describes the squirrel scampering away from its predators as simply: “magic wee silvery grey thing … ken?” The spoken word looks strange on the page, but Welsh understands that this strangeness can be beautiful and carry meaning. When he makes jokes with words, they resonate. Many of his word-games involve drug references. Renton talks about his “beautiful heroine's tender caresses.” The word “score” makes itself felt in different ways, as a drug term and a sports term. Soccer is a kind of addiction in Renton's world, though he seems to have graduated from it to smack, and the childhood and national obsession with the game plays a large role in conversation. Before shooting up, Renton and his friends sometimes say, “Let's do it for the fans.” On another occasion, Renton speculates semi-sarcastically that his drug problem might be related to his local soccer team's poor performance during the 1980s.
It is Renton who does most of the verbal tripping. When he is arrested—for stealing books—he defends himself before the judge by quoting Kierkegaard and vowing to beat his disease. He knows he can keep a straight face because he's so used to humoring Begbie, and to lying in general. As he puts it, “Better deadpan than dead.”
One of Welsh's favorite words is “habit.” He uses its religious echo punningly: “We called Johnny ‘Mother Superior’ because ay the length ay time he’d hud his habit.” Habit is an important word not only because of its religious connotation and its drug reference, but because it implies a lack of choice, or absence of the will to choose. Renton and his bunch despise all the choices that they think society wants them to make, and so they feel as if they have no choices at all:
Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Well, ah choose not tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it's thair fuckin problem.
This is a terrific passage. It is a manifesto not for suicide, but for the sidelines—for the limbo of addiction, sarcasm, escape.
The darkly funny thing is, right after Renton says this he OD's, unintentionally it seems, and gets taken to his parents’ home—his parents being people who have “chosen life.” As he lies in bed, suffering from withdrawal, Renton is visited by horrible delusions, lectured by his ineffectual father and fed meat by his mother, who ignores his vegetarianism. Most ironic of all, it is here, in his parents’ house, that Renton begins to change. Sick Boy comes to visit, and Renton allows himself to acknowledge for the first time that his friend is a manipulative hypocrite who never took responsibility for his own child, a baby who died from neglect in the early part of the book. When Sick Boy leaves, Renton realizes: “Something hud happened. Junk hud happened. Whether ah lived wi it, died wi it, or lived withoot it, ah knew that things could never be the same again. Ah huv tae get oot ay Leith, oot ay Scotland. For good.”
Renton has this revelation a little more than halfway through the book, and it provides a turning point, sort of. We watch Renton's change with attention. He goes with his parents to their Saturday night club, where he dances with his mother to “Sweet Caroline”: “Ah love the fuck ootay the bastards,” he realizes grudgingly, “if the truth be telt.” Reality begins to exert more pressure on Renton's life. He buries his brother Billy, who is killed three weeks before the end of his tour of duty. Renton has no tears for Billy, or illusions: “Billy was just a silly cunt, pure and simple. No a hero, no a martyr, just a daft cunt.” But he does think his friend Davie, who has “caught HIV fae [from] this lassie,” is brave to come to the burial.
Welsh is subtle. Rent does not change dramatically as a result of all this: he has sex with Sharon, his brother's widow, in the bathroom of his parents’ house after the funeral. But he does leave Leith for London. He tries to stay off heroin. He holds down a regular job, and hangs out with yuppies who have pretensions to drug abuse. In one scene, he turns down a joint with deadpan mockery: “Call me a wanker if you will, but I’ve always been a wee bit nervous around drugs.” He misses his girlfriend Kelly, who's gone back to Scotland to finish school. Kelly is perfect for him: waitressing to pay her tuition, she takes revenge on a group of sexist customers by pissing on their fish and blending her shit into their chocolate dessert.
For Renton, the pull of the old life is still strong, but its tragic consequences are becoming clearer. He comes up from London to attend the funeral of a friend who has died of AIDS. He returns later to find that his old dealer, Johnny “Mother Superior,” is an amputee. Having shot up into an artery in his leg, his limb is now “a bairn's arm wi an aypil oan the end ay it. [a baby's arm with an apple on the end of it].” It's while talking to Johnny that Renton reveals in one remark that he has changed. When Johnny asks him, “Ye still knobbin [fucking] Kelly?” Renton says, “Naw, she's back up here.” Then he thinks, “Ah did-nae like the wey he said that, n ah did-nae like the wey ah responded.” This is a new Renton—not exactly a clean-cut Thatcherite, but someone with a little compassion for the first time.
In the midst of Renton's gradual transformation, Welsh includes a chapter that stands as the most powerful episode in the book. Called “Bad Blood,” it tells the story of Davie, the HIV-positive friend who attended Billy's funeral, and his revenge on Al, the brute who raped Davie's girlfriend and knowingly infected her (and by extension, Davie). A remarkable, funny, grotesquely satisfying story, told with the black humor and suspense of a Hitchcock movie, it takes all the rage and inventiveness that Renton and his band of outsiders have used against innocent victims and themselves, and puts it to good use. The rapist in the story is a disgusting excuse for a human being. Davie finds his secret weakness and exploits it to macabre effect. Unlike Begbie's violence, Spud's hapless adventures, Sick Boy's misogyny or Renton's suicidal addiction, Davie's rage is justified, and aimed in the right direction. Signaling the importance of this, Welsh transposes Renton's line comparing heroin to an orgasm from the beginning of the book. Just before exacting his perfect revenge, Davie says to the rapist: “Think of the worst possible thing I could do to make you pissed off, Al. Then multiply it by one thousand … and you’re not even fuckin close.”
Renton also has an awakening that involves AIDS. It is not as moving as Davie's, because Renton has escaped infection himself, but it allows Renton to face questions of mortality and morality. It comes when he visits Tommy, the friend whom he turned on to heroin in the beginning of the book, in the days when he said things like “smack's the only honest drug” in between lies. Tommy has contracted AIDS, and Renton wonders about his own culpability: “Wis it me thit encouraged Tommy tae take that first shot, jist by having the gear thair? Possibly. Probably. How guilty did that make us? Guilty enough.” So Renton takes a little responsibility, and he figures out something else: “Ah realise now that death is usually a process, rather than an event.” This is a step out of the junkie mentality. He sees, at last, that things happen over time, not in one orgasmic, narcotic burst; and therefore that change is possible.
Welsh treats Renton's hard-won understanding with a light touch. Trainspotting is not the radical manual for the destruction of society that it sometimes pretends to be. But it isn’t a moralizing tract prescribing sentimental answers, either. In the final chapter, Renton reunites with his partners-in-crime for one final, misguided drug deal. They pick up some heroin in Scotland and take it down to London for a big sale. Revealing how little they understand Renton, how far he has grown from them and how stupid they are, Begbie and the gang leave the bag of money with their old pal, while they go off to drink and shoot pool. It is not hard to imagine what happens next.
Renton's action at the end of the book mirrors his moral dilemma at the beginning, only this time he has a different take. It is a fraught choice, and Welsh does not try to gloss over the ambiguities. It is not only Welsh's insistence on examining his characters’ motives and actions with ruthless honesty, but also his refusal to judge them, that makes Trainspotting such a strong, intelligent book. In the end, even the question of Renton's addiction is left up in the air: “Was he a junky? He couldn’t really answer that question now. Only time could do that.” At least Renton asks the question, and answers it with some self-knowledge. More important, he makes a choice. Even if he doesn’t choose the straight road, he does, despite all indications to the contrary, choose life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322
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 heralding the return of heroin—snorted, not shot. The Scots, however, stuck to needles: Glasgow is said to be riddled with mainlining junkies.
For sure, Trainspotting had the right stuff to make it an instant cult classic. Welsh, like McInerney, juggles sincerity and cynicism, ennui and energy, fashionable despair and smarmy sentimentality in his novel, a loose narrative that follows a group of mates struggling to get by in Leith, a suburb of Edinburgh. Most of them are unemployed, some of them steal, all of them live for sex, drugs and violence. Several die from AIDS, others carry on with their scruffy, chemically compromised lives, survivors taking solace in each other's company.
During the three years between his debuts on both sides of the Atlantic, Welsh has produced two other best-sellers and is working on a television series, a BBC movie and a stage play. Most recently, he has published his fourth book, Ecstasy, a trio of novellas that covers familiar turf—working-class ravers (to rave is to take the drug ecstasy and dance all night) and nutters who torment and humiliate each other in a tender sort of way. Tender, for all they really want is a little loving kindness—corny as that may sound to hipsters hoping to find in these pages more hoary stories of heroin-addled antiheroes.
Ecstasy like Trainspotting, is fun to read, especially for Americans with a taste for Scottish dialect. “Whoah … slow doon thair gadgie … Ye meet this bird whae's oot fir the first time since she escaped this straight-peg, she's taken her first ever ekcy, you’re E’d up and yir talkin love?” asks one Leith raver of another. “Sounds a wee bit like the chemical love to me.” London critics have taken Welsh to task for fluffing other brogues—one of his characters hails from the West Country, for example, and talks with z's and oi's—“Oi rulz out nuttin at no toimes”—but that's a British complaint.
The first of Ecstasy's three tales, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston” is a pleasantly contrived confection involving Rebecca, the fat and fatuous writer of Miss May Regency romance novels, and her dissolute husband, Perky. As might be expected given Rebecca's profession, the story unfolds along two narratives—what happens to the characters in Welsh's story, and what happens to the characters in Rebecca's work-in-progress, her 14th book interrupted when the overweight authoress falls flat on her face from a chocolate-induced stroke.
In fact, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston” is an excuse for Welsh to send up the romance genre. Rebecca's work-in-progress is a tepid version of Tom Jones—we are treated to several passages from the manuscript—starring the swashbuckling Marcus Cox, a bullish young blood with his sword aimed at Lorraine, the obligatory ingenue under Miss May's care. In reality, Rebecca is being cared for by a nurse named Lorraine, who not only suffers her patient's apoplectic blathering but goads her on to revenge—it seems that Perky has been siphoning off Rebecca's royalties and spending the money on pornography.
Rebecca's vengeance is predictable—her romance novel turns bawdy. In one reprintable scene, Colonel Cox has just rescued Lorraine from two drunk soldiers, then turns the tables on the scoundrels. “These traditions of punishment for junior officers who transgress, in this or any manner, are the punishments which I myself now feel duty-bound to administer,” Cox tells the men. “Drop your trousers, the both of you!” Meanwhile, Lorraine climbs safely into a waiting carriage. “She could watch no more, but she did hear the screams of one man and then the other, followed by Marcus shouting:—I will have satisfaction!”
Welsh is a talented parodist. Even Trainspotting, a series of monologues strung together by the thinnest pretext, is a kind of parody—down and out in Scotland circa 1990. But he has the parodist's fatal flaw: He doesn’t know when to stop. Like Ellis, who went over the top with the egregious spoof of consumerism in American Psycho, Welsh turns black humor into sick humor, forfeiting all those intangible assets—plausibility, good faith, judgment—that underlie worthwhile fiction.
In “Lorraine Goes to Livingston,” for example, a peripheral character, Freddy Royle, has a taste for necrophilia that he manages to indulge in outlandish manner. (Warning: Welsh's readers should be prepared for a plethora four-letter words and a preponderance of scatological jokes.) And the second story in Ecstasy, “Fortune's Always Hiding,” is another tale of revenge in which an armless terrorist—a thalidomide baby grown into angry adulthood—slices off the limbs of a drug-company executive with a chain saw. The final scene of the story is climactic in two ways. The terrorist's boyfriend, whose own arm is being torn off by police trying to stop the carnage, discovers the meaning of love in death:
Samantha, there on her arse, saw in her feet, ripping the screaming captive beast's limb from him … God, she looks like she does when I’m giving her one and I hear another splintering and it's me this time, it's my arm, and the Pain is just so much I’m gonna black out but I’m catching Samantha's look at me as I fall and she's shouting something which I can't hear but I know what it is, I can see it on her lips … she's mouthing I love you … and I’m doing it back …
Welsh is better than this—at least, Trainspotting is better than Ecstasy, even allowing that the third story in the collection, “The Undefeated,” seems to be outtakes from the novel. “The Undefeated” also involves revenge—that of Heather, who leaves her uncomprehending husband and patronizing boss to find love with Lloyd, a drug dealer and part-time D.J. Heather and Lloyd “turn their backs on the chaos” at story's end, just as Trainspotting's protagonist, Rents, seems to escape Scotland to a better life in Amsterdam, but no reader can believe these people will leave drugs behind. Welsh's characters like their chemical nihilism. They’d rather not give a damn.
“Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ay sound mind etcetera, etcetera, but still want tai use smack?” asks Rents rhetorically, rejecting the notion of clean and sober. “They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it's a sign ay thir ain failure. … Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows. … Choose rotting away … Choose life.”
In the world according to Welsh, therein lies the exquisite ecstasy of the modern existential dilemma—an updated version of only the good die young.
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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 States and in the gay dance party phenomenon in Sydney, Australia. Recently, in New York, it has become the drug of choice for young people in the alternative music scene. The psychopathology associated with this drug includes psychotic symptoms, visual illusions, hallucinations, palinopsia, panic attacks, depression, derealization, and suicide. Physical side effects include intracranial hemorrhage or arterial occlusion, hyperthermia, congestive heart failure, and the serotonin syndrome. The drug damages 5-hydroxytryptamine neurons and elevates dopamine and noradrenaline in the hippocampus in experimental animals. Like many drugs of abuse, ecstasy is popularly thought to be safe. In addition to the pharmacological side effects, however, injuries have been reported following bizarre and reckless behavior resulting from taking the drug, including car surfing, indiscriminate sexual activity, and simply dancing to the point of exhaustion.
Irvine Welsh's first book, Trainspotting1, was a depiction of heroin abuse and the drug-seeking lifestyle, written in Scottish dialect. This collection of stories broke new ground in the Celtic literary renaissance. Marabou Stork Nightmares is Welsh's third book, written after The Acid House,2 and goes beyond realism to surrealism.
“You can either use drugs as a validation of the joy of life or can use them as an escape from its horrors. You have to become sensitive to the point where one shades into the other. I wasn’t, and I went through a bad time” (p. 244). Ray Strang, a man in a coma, narrates this bizarre story, shifting from a terrifying hallucinatory dream, to memories of drugs and violence in the underbelly of Edinburgh, to family drama (“I grew up in what was not so much a family as an genetic disaster”), to a courtroom drama of rape and revenge. The surrealistic African stork hunt reads as if Carl Gustav Jung met Ranier Maria Rilke in a play by Samuel Beckett.
The marabou stork of the title (Leptoptilos Crumeniferus) is a carrion-eating bird with a wingspread of 8.5 feet and an ugly naked pinkish head and neck. Marabou is derived from the Arabic word meaning holy man or hermit. Although storks are the sacred bird of Islam and are considered good luck in northern Europe, Marabou Stork Nightmares is more terrifying than reality could ever be, for one may escape from reality, but one's nightmares come from within.
The narrative power of Welsh's profoundly disturbing novel is more accessible than James Joyce, deeper and more philosophical than William Burroughs, and as lyrical as his countryman Robert Burns. Burns was described as the poet who “quintessentialized the elements of the Vernacular Genius”3. Welsh has brought the vernacular to a new level. From Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), through books like Naked Lunch by William Burroughs or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson, to books of poverty and survival such as George Orwell's Down and Out in the Streets of London and Paris, one may gain insight and understanding into a life one would rather not experience firsthand.
This novel will be compared to the Booker Prize winner How Late It Was, How Late, by James Kelman4, whose protagonist wakes up in jail, shoeless and blind after a 2-day drinking binge. Marabou Stork Nightmares is to ecstasy what How Late It Was, How Late is to alcohol. This novel is required reading for psychiatrists dealing with drug abuse or for those who simply want to gain insight into the society of drug users, the violently promiscuous, and the problematic individuals found in every culture. Welsh's prose has a savage beauty that can be appreciated for its own sake, however; he so captures the music of speech that this book should be read aloud.
Feminists will read this book and find no better depiction of rape and its consequences, and sociologists will cite this novel for its depiction of life in the projects.
Trainspotting, with its depiction of heroin addiction and the savage punk life of Scottish junkies, became an immediate bestseller and a movie. Marabou Stork Nightmares breaks new ground in narrative, vernacular language and in the psychology of drug abuse, but, most of all, it is an amazing work of art.
Welsh I: Trainspotting. New York, W. W. Norton, 1996.
Welsh I: The Acid House: Stories. New York, W. W. Norton, 1995.
Henley W. E: “Life, Genius, Achievement,” in The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns, Cambridge ed. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1897.
Kelman J: How Late It Was, How Late. New York, W. W. Norton, 1994.
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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 heroin addiction, personal dead-ends, joblessness, and romantic plague. Indeed, a large portion of Welsh's genius lies in creating narrators whose blear-eyed, frightened, raging self-regard can turn rockingly funny. In the best stories narrators obsess in rich, clotted streams about the violence they have casually opened doors onto or accidentally participated in, the twisted families, diehard football fans, and the sociopaths they live near; the thick, twitchy, irascible, verbally murderous hooligans that they suspect they may (to their own amusement) be turning into.
If his world has a poundingly grim sociological texture—and it does—Welsh's language, best spoken aloud, is thrillingly alive. In “A Soft Touch” a self-deluded Scotsman named John recounts his romance with Katriona, who left him in mid-pregnancy even while her terrifying brothers stashed heroin in his flat: “No hash or nowt like that; wit talking aboot smack here. … Ah could’ve gone doon. Done time; fuckin years ah could have done. Fuckin years for the Doyles and thir hoor ay a sister.” The adrenaline idling in John's voice here is key to whatever meaning the story has: his idol is fate lightly eluded and John palpably brightens to a fresh encounter with it at the end as Katriona walks into his pub again.
Everywhere, narrators gleam with similar hostile lyricism over their appalling themes. Whether it be sexual humiliation (“Eurotrash”), “fitba” (“Wayne Foster”), or a grandmother's habit (“Granny's Old Junk”), Welsh is a master of the scuzzily, darkly hilarious. Where humor, horror, and surreal whimsy mix the writing can be dizzying, as in this unphotogenic episode in “The Granton Star Cause” in which a football player, transformed into a blue bottle fly, journeys to his parents’ home:
His father was clad in a black nylon body-stocking with a hole at the crotch. His arms were outstretched with his hands on the mantelpiece and his legs spread. Boab senior's flab rippled in his clinging costume. Boab's mother was naked, apart from a belt which was fastened so tightly around her body it cut sharply into her wobbling flesh, making her look like a pillow tied in the middle with a piece of string. Attached to the belt was a massive latex dildo, most of which was in Boab senior's anus. Most, but still not enough for Boab senior.
At his least interesting Welsh cloaks his stories in swirling sensation. The acid trip in “The Acid House,” for example, is recreated in playful boxes of prose like those of Welsh's contemporary, Alasdair Gray. But the best work offers complex pleasures. In the longest story, A Smart Cunt, a loafer named Brian spends his workday at the “parks” masturbating, shooting up and reading biographies of black radicals. (Like other narrators, Brian feigns an anti-establishment lifestyle in order to mask the essential drift of his life; Welsh's anatomy of economic decay is another matter.) Fired for drug use, Brian spends Christmas with his sometime friend, Blind Cunt, whom his other friend, Roxy, kills in a “radge” fit. Another evening Brian watches his stoned and unconscious mate, Ronnie, receive oral sex from Denise, a cross-dresser. And so on. His life is a lonely, half-risible hell. Yet near the end of the story (and the collection), Brian awakes after another night of chaos and stumbles on a case of letters from his mother, who wrote to his father for years from Australia, begging to be put in touch with the children. Brian wonders what ever happened to her:
I copy down the address and phone number in Melbourne onto a piece of scrap paper. This is total shite. This is another load of shite to get through. There's always more, always more of this fuckin shite to get through. It never ends. They say it gets easier to handle the older you get. I hope so. I hope tae fuck.
In that last sentence is a whole perilous world view, and how you read it will likely determine the way you take every story in this stunning collection.
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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 confessional booth or bar. As Welsh interweaves three levels of Strang's subconscious, we hear how his lifelong inaction results in his own predicament. Moreover, we are forced to examine our own complicity in both the reading of the text and our own social actions. If we accept the status quo, we can read biographical excuses into Strang's crime, thereby reinforcing the novel's culture of misguided victimization. However, if we read and live critically, we may recognize unfairness and act justly. This is the understanding to which Strang is coming, and it puts quite a terrifying spin on the time he is spending in a coma: his suspended existence becomes an inverted purgatory which offers only the tease of redemption and the time to factually and imaginatively convict himself. As Strang's surreal dream quest collapses onto itself and reveals him as the evil he had been seeking, so we find our own best intentions (and the narratives which surround them) exposed for their self-congratulatory complicity.
Ultimately, the style and subject matter of Marabou Stork Nightmares combine to make an incision into the layer of slothful acceptance and rationalization that covers society. As Welsh shows, the putrid stuff that lies beneath may carry fearful implications, but the honest engagement with this underbelly may also reveal the only beauty there is in this world—that of the struggle.
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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 Sensibility (1995), and Emma (1996)—all of them, not by chance, concerned with young women in their hunt for rich husbands. Well, the status quo has changed for the moment with the export of Trainspotting, already the second biggest homegrown box-office success in British film history, unlike any other such movie with a plebeian-as-protagonist from Room at the Top (1958) to Riff-Raff (1993).
Trainspotting was directed by Danny Boyle, from a screenplay by John Hodge, who adapted Irvine Welsh's novel of the same title published in 1993. This team was previously responsible for the significantly lesser Shallow Grave (1995), a macabre comedy about three young Edinburgh professionals who discover not only the dead body of their new flatmate, but also his suitcase full of drug money and with it their own darkest impulses. This time we’re in Edinburgh again, but the main characters are now a group of twenty-something heroin addicts. Moreover, the fact that the new film twice quotes the opening of the Beatles movie Help! (1965) should indicate that its intention is not to take another sober, socially realistic look either at alienated youth in the tradition of the English picture Look Back in Anger (1959), drug addiction in the manner of the American movie Panic in Needle Park (1971), or these two subjects combined, along with heavy drinking, as in Larry Clark's Kids (1996).
Rather, Trainspotting invokes the formalistic arsenal employed by Richard Lester to create a dazzling new kind of audiovisual comedy in his two Beatles films, the first of which was A Hard Day's Night (1964): slow motion and accelerated action; freeze frames and wide angles; jump cuts and zoom shots; a handheld, hurtling camera and wildly imaginative, when not downright hallucinatory, visual imagery. All of this topped off, in Lester's case, by lots of Beatles songs on the soundtrack together with the offbeat poetry of Liverpudlian English, and in Boyle's case by a pulsating techno-pop score featuring Iggy Pop's “Lust for Life,” with support from the thick music of Scottish accents verging on dialect. Let there be no mistake, however: the exhilarating comedy of Trainspotting has its dark, even horrifying side as well as its deeper meaning, by contrast with which the youthful rebellion of the Beatles and their movies seems tame and inconsequential indeed.
Let's start with Welsh's novel, whose title refers to the compulsive British hobby of collecting locomotive engine numbers from the national railway system. In its ultimate pointlessness despite its imparting of some structure or regularity to daily life, this activity is intended to be a metaphor for shooting heroin and the obsessional, senseless nature of the addict's life. Unlike the film, the book takes the trainspotting metaphor no farther than this. Equally unlike the film, its story is told not only by the main character, Mark Renton, but also by his friends, so that its narrative voices are several; otherwise Welsh writes in the third person so that he can stay close enough to his characters to get into their heads, yet far enough away to reveal their self-delusion. The movie of Trainspotting, as you can well guess, economically gives us only Renton's first-person narration in an intermittent voice-over that is circumscribed by the natural omniscience of film form. The film sacrifices the “psychic distance” of Welsh's third-person narration because, given its different thematic intent, it doesn’t require such distancing.
Welsh's novel is a coming-of-age story in the tradition, mutatis mutandis, of Catcher in the Rye (1951). It is neither a glorification of heroin use, an anarchist's call for the destruction of society, nor, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a moralistic condemnation of drug addiction. Instead, the book makes the characters’ desire for chemically induced oblivion comprehensible, given the sordid, disaffecting environment in which they live: Leith, a working-class area of housing projects on Edinburgh's old dockside. At the same time, Welsh questions the feasibility or merit of such a dangerous if pleasurable form of escape, and this questioning lends sporadic narrative drive to his episodic tale, for throughout we wonder above all else whether Renton will be able to “betray” his mates by kicking his heroin habit, moving on, and finally becoming his own man.
By the end of the novel he has begun to change, he has begun to see the tragic consequences of drug addiction; his transformation is thus not dramatic, but it isn’t sentimental, either. In the first instance, the question of his going straight is left up in the air rather than decisively or dramatically answered: “But was he a junky? True, he had just used again, but the gaps between his using were growing. However, he couldn’t really answer this question now. Only time could do that” (343). In the second instance, the nature of Renton's break from his fellow users rules out the possibility that benign sentiment or virtuous feeling played any role in it: he steals all the money they have just made on a big drug deal (for which he served as tester of the heroin's quality), then flees to the Netherlands. Welsh concludes the novel of Trainspotting with the following, guardedly optimistic passage:
[Renton] had done what he wanted to do. He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be. He’d stand or fall alone. This thought both terrified and excited him as he contemplated life in Amsterdam.
The film of Trainspotting ends with the same thieving action on the part of Renton, but it is followed by a voice-over from him whose content is quite different from that of the above, third-person excerpt. I quote from the screenplay by John Hodge, which has recently been published in standard English—a language that is not to be heard in the movie and that is limited to Welsh's narration in the book:
So why did I do it? I could offer a million answers, all false. The truth is that I’m a bad person, but that's going to change, I’m going to change. This is the last of this sort of thing. I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electrical tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisurewear, luggage, three-piece suite DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die.
Now compare this final monologue by Renton with his opening voice-over rant in the film, which occurs in similar form in the book as well but more than halfway through Welsh's narrative (187), so that its thematic impact is diluted:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
It is the relationship between these framing soliloquies, as it were—as well as between them and their novelistic counterparts—that provides the key to interpreting Boyle's film and accounts for the difference in meaning between it and Welsh's original fiction.
Trainspotting begins with a literal rush as Mark Renton jumps over the camera and hurtles down the street while store detectives chase after him and his fellow shoplifter, Spud. Simultaneously, on the soundtrack, the thieving Renton is quietly reciting the aforementioned litany of choices he has not made. He is one of an odd assortment of young men (sensibly cut down to five from the book's larger cast of characters), including the hapless, gawky, goggle-eyed Spud and the bleached-blond, narcissistic, self-styled intellectual affectionately known as Sick Boy, for almost all of whom heroin addiction is a “full-time business.” The “business,” of course, is robbery to support their habit, be it in the form of shoplifting, mugging, pinching money from relatives, or swiping drugs, prescription pads, and televisions from old-age homes—drug-dealing for this gang being the business of last resort on account of the constant risk, steady planning, and virtual abstinence required. Almost all these episodes of thieving are presented comically, as are some incidents of violence. This might lead one to believe that Trainspotting is as morally vacant or anarchic as a slew of movies from the French Going Places (1974) to the American Pulp Fiction (1994), both of which also use humor to grease their characters’ murderous or exploitative acts. But the comedy in Danny Boyle's film (as opposed to Welsh's novel, which, in keeping with its desire to gain a critical perspective on events, more often employs irony) serves an additional, higher purpose.
For one thing, it is a relief from the horrors of drug addiction, among them AIDS, which is contracted by the once clean, athletic Tommy after Renton turns his friend on to heroin as a way of forgetting Liz, the young woman who rejected him. The virus in tandem with the narcotic eventuates in Tommy's gruesome death on the floor of a dimly lit, ill-furnished apartment littered with cat feces. A ten-month-old baby dies in this film, too. He's the son of Sick Boy and his girl Allison—a son whose father never acknowledges him as his own until the baby suddenly dies of a combination of neglect and SIDS amid the discarded needles and scattered debris of the addicts’ favorite shooting gallery. It is there, early in the novel as well as the movie, that Renton comforts the wailing, disconsolate, now childless Allison by giving her a shot of heroin—after he gives himself one, tellingly. This is the most painful, jolting scene we see, even more so than the sequences devoted to Renton's accidental overdose and later, forced withdrawal.
So Trainspotting provides us with comic relief from moments like these, but its comedy is also designed to satirize bourgeois society and shock bourgeois sensibility—that is, to repudiate human life as we know it, or think we know it, in this age of global consumer culture. In the film, we see Renton and his pals’ drug-taking as a reaction to the absurd banality of such life, whereas in the novel heroin use seems more to be a proletarian escape from the alienation and depression induced by capitalist-colonialist oppression. Hence Renton's diatribe against British rule merely rings poignant in the book, as it is spoken in a bar and directed more than anything else at Edinburgh Castle, which in its place high above the city is a symbol of everything the protagonist hates:
Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can't even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.
The same speech in the movie is delivered during a railway outing, arranged by Tommy (before he succumbs to drugs), to the Scottish countryside, whose picture-postcard beauty, fresh air, and open space comically inspire loathing in Renton, Sick Boy, and Spud. For this is the Scotland beloved by tourists—by the idle middle class, in other words—and it is the very Scotland that drives the boys back to heroin after their first try at kicking the habit.
At least one other scene is so designed to shock the bourgeoisie, and it is a species of bathroom humor. It comes quickly in the movie, so as to prepare us for (or send us packing from) what is to follow, and involves Renton as he dives into the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” to retrieve drug suppositories he has lost. He uses them to relieve the constipation that comes with heroin addiction, and he thriftily wants to use these two—the ones he has just shat into the bowl—again. This scene also occurs in Welsh's novel, but there it is merely stomach-turning, and there Renton makes no such hallucinatory descent into the fecal underworld. Boyle's film slyly delivers what could be called the Martha Stewart version, in that in the process of getting back his suppositories, our hero also takes a cleansing swim in deep, sea-green water to the tune of sprightly yet sweet-sounding music on the track. We still get the bloody disgusting excrement both before and after Renton's plunge (as he climbs back up and out of the toilet), but the point is that in between we get a child's or bourgeois matron's fanciful view of the plumbing depths—as filtered through or equated with the vision of a drug-crazed mind.
Up to now, I’ve omitted any discussion of Renton's fourth mate, Francis Begbie, because unlike the others he is an alcoholic. That is, he abuses the bourgeoisie's drug of choice, and to Renton he himself is like an addiction. This sociopathic foil doesn’t do drugs, he “does people,” which is to say that he tyrannizes and brutalizes them. The film implicitly as well as shrewdly poses the easy question: as between choices, whom would you rather take, or who would you prefer to be, the viciously sadistic Begbie or the smartly sensitive Renton? To this end, naturally, Trainspotting depicts Begbie's violence, destructiveness, and intimidation without the farce that would make these traits digestible. By contrast, comedy does make palatable the crimes and misdemeanors, the mischief and mistakes, of the drugusers in the film, even as satire momentarily renders harmless the pretensions together with the vices of the middle class. Moreover, Begbie's swaggering machismo pathetically if justly lands him in bed with a transvestite, whereas Renton, Sick Boy, and even Spud all have girlfriends who pursue them for their bodies—sometimes humorously so.
In the film of Trainspotting in fact, Renton's desire to kick his drug habit is linked more to a desire to regain his sexual potency than to any wish of reforming or rehabilitating himself. He seems to want merely to exchange one pleasure for another, since the two don’t go together and since promiscuous sex is less dangerous than heroin use (although not by much in the age of AIDS). The moral or ethical stigma attached to drug use is largely missing from the movie, then, as it is not from the novel, the only real choice for the cinematic Renton being between a speedy if euphoric death from heroin overdose and a slow death—punctuated by bouts of sexual stimulation—from bourgeois stupefaction. For in his mind the two lives are equally meaningless, equally cut off from religious, metaphysical, or transcendental causation or provenance. Philosophically speaking, life without drugs is just as absurd, just as pointless in the end, as life on drugs; in this view, each is its own kind of inane trainspotting, and the sole issue becomes how much you can, or want to, take of either.
Renton simply wants to postpone his own senseless death in favor of a minimally sentient life, so he swears off heroin three times in the film, only to fall back into the habit. The last time he is in London, where he has gone as much to escape the manipulative hypocrisy of Sick Boy and the indiscriminate bullying of Begbie as to clean up his act. There he gets a job with a rental agency showing overpriced apartments in a gentrified London turned tawdry by Brian Tufano's slightly overexposed cinematography (which uses the reverse technique to exacerbate the squalor of the drug den). There also he is rejoined in his small flat by the sponging Begbie and Sick Boy, as well as later by the ne’er-do-well Spud, for the lucky sale of two kilos of heroin at a profit of £12,000. This is the point of his third relapse, where, as chief sampler of the smack, he shoots up again; and this is the loot he steals in the film as in the novel.
Except that the film of Trainspotting ends on a monetary or marketing note, not a metamorphosing one, with Renton's previously quoted voice-over monologue. Significantly, as Renton talks on the soundtrack, he grinningly walks straight at the camera, which remains stationary and therefore quickly turns his image into one big blur. Metaphorically, he is gliding into bourgeois-induced, rather than drug-initiated, oblivion. He says he has chosen life, but the ironic comments “I’m going to be just like you” and “looking ahead, to the day you die,” along with the catalogue of bourgeois diversions from life's ultimate purposelessness, indicate that what he has really done is to choose one poison over another, the slow-acting rather than the fast, the pecuniary material high instead of the bankrupt mental one. Finally, Renton remains “bad” and unchanged in the movie. His moving on signifies not the clear-eyed, bourgeois defeat of drug-supported idealism, but rather the moral equation of mind-numbing, spirit-crushing philistinism with narcotizing, soporific drug addiction in a world bereft of God and soul.
Renton is played, or better underplayed, by Ewan McGregor, whose intermittent voice-over does much of the work of characterization for him. But the dry, wry quality of his acting is effective here, given Renton's bifurcated nature as someone who simultaneously lives his experience on screen and observes or reviews his living of it on the soundtrack. The contrast between Renton and the grotesques who surround him in the film of Trainspotting couldn’t be greater, of course: particularly Spud, affectingly played by Ewen Bremner, who shows us why Renton loved this misfit so; and Begbie, pungently acted by Robert Carlyle, who makes this heterosexual as frighteningly dangerous as he made his homosexual character engagingly gentle in Priest (1994). A special nod goes to Boyle's editor, Masahiro Hirakubo, who contributes to the effectiveness of these performances, and by extension to the impact as well as the bearability of the film, by not allowing Tufano's camera to dwell on any one of them, or on any of the picture's mind-blowing or gut-wrenching scenes: Trainspotting takes only ninety-four minutes to run its course, or rather to complete its trip inside the artificial thrill of chemical deadening.
Along the way it manages to include videotape among its array of formalistic devices, like films from sex, lies, and videotape (1989) to Cold Fever (1995). In Trainspotting, the video is of Tommy and his girlfriend, Liz, having rear-entry intercourse, a tape that Renton steals and impassively, not salaciously, watches one day together with the equally expressionless Sick Boy. Unlike the straight or sober, ultimately cathartic video screenings to be found in the aforementioned films by Steven Soderbergh and Fridik Thor Fredriksson, respectively, Renton and Sick Boy's comic screening leads only to the desire to get off drugs long enough to recover potency, find a girl, and “shag” her. The difference between Trainspotting and the devoutly transcendental Cold Fever, on the one hand, and the romantically idealistic sex, lies, and videotape on the other, is the distance between the sacred and the profane, the profound and the absurd, the providential and the haphazard. Mark Renton says in the end that he chooses life, but what he really chooses is a living death without benefit of love of God or woman.
Hodge, John. Trainspotting: The Screenplay. New York: Hyperion, 1996.
Welsh, Irvine. Trainspotting. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. First published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg, 1993.
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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 killer, but he does not put his heart into it. With one so venal it is not hard to guess why. Filth is not the kind of thriller to keep you guessing to the last page. Instead, the murder of a black journalist is simply a leaping-off point into the abyss that is the Edinburgh underworld, replete with gangsters, pushers, alcoholics. Freemasons and supporters of Heart of Midlothian FC, recent winners of the Scottish Cup and deadly local rivals to Hibs, recently demoted to the First Division and backed by the laureate of the chemical generation. Rare are the schoolboys who like their in-jokes as much as Irvine Welsh.
Robertson, like Hibs, is on the way down. Drink is his chief way of keeping the demon worm at bay, as if he were trying to drown it in whisky. His wife has left him, and he seeks solace with other women. Anything in a skirt will do. He prefers anal sex, and it's probably just as well given the state his genitals are in. You’d need to be blind or unbelievably desperate to have sex with this degree of eczema. With Christmas creeping slowly toward him, his loneliness drives him to listen to Deep Purple and Phil Collins; Dire Straits is what he should be listening to.
To aficionados of Scottish fiction, Robertson is the type of type who is all too unoriginally familiar. Guilt racks him like a hangover. Name a Scottish author who hasn’t indulged in the national preoccupation and you will not find him—and it's invariably a him—on any academic syllabus. Guilt is the country's neurosis, its professional pastime. There are even Scots who feel guilty because they don’t feel guilt.
Blame it on Stevenson or James Hogg or Scott and the border ballads. Blame it on Ally McLeod or Andrew Carnegie or the ‘parcel o’ rogues’ who sold the country for a song in 1707. Whoever's fault it is, it has held Scotland in its vice for centuries until successive generations of writers have taken it, unquestioningly, as read. To be a Scottish optimist is an oxymoron. But where does Irvine Welsh's guilt come from? If I were being facetious I’d hazard it was because of books like Filth which aim by inversion to show society's ills and end up encouraging readers to rejoice in them.
As an archetype, Robertson is over the top. Welsh slips so easily into degradation mode that pages slip by in wodges, a miasma of pornography that is mindnumbing. The worm inside him speaks Queen's English while Robertson reverts to the patois. He is the ultimate betrayer, not only sleeping with his brother's wife and his best friend's wife but also turning his back on the mining community where he was brought up at the time of the strike. The worm knows his roots in the age-old way that those who stay behind in Scotland are apt to cut down those who have gone away and believe they have made it in the great metropolises. ‘Ah kent your faither’, they remind those who get above themselves on the few occasions they return home to lord it over the natives. Robertson's fear, however, lies deeper and darker but Welsh lets him sink so low he is not resuscitable. For such a man, the idea of redemption seems risible. His sin goes beyond breaking the law. Guilt, ultimately, is the least of his problems. He has committed the cardinal crime. He is a crushing bore.
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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 plentiful sex and drugs (a meticulous and disheartening account of which is to follow). But there has been a gruesome murder in Edinburgh—the son of an African diplomat found in the street with his head smashed in with a hammer. When the case comes Bruce's way, he tells us in the now familiar Welshspeak: “—Me give up ma fuckin holiday for some stiffed nig-nog? Aye right. I look fucking sweet right enough. As if I give an Aylesbury.” The problem with interior monologue, as Irvine Welsh illustrates more clearly than most of its exponents, is that the speaker/thinker cannot shut up. We loathe Bruce within five pages. Having first robbed and then inwardly insulted a burgled pensioner (“Ya fuckin dirty fanny-flapped faced old hoor! A fuss over fuckin nowt!”), he moves on through his holiday requirements to consider starting an argument about whether Ian Gillan or David Coverdale was the better Deep Purple vocalist, and thence to considerations of the sexual inadequacy of his colleague and friend Ray Lennox. This is his basic repertoire, punctuated by his signature phrase, “Same rules apply.”
Readers could be forgiven for thinking that Irvine Welsh is stacking the deck somewhat against the Lothian and Borders constabulary, though the sins of the polis make a natural counterbalance to those of the schemies dealt with elsewhere in his work. The police, it is clear, embody the grubby, incurious narrowness and ignorant intolerance which Welsh sees in Scots life as a mirror to the meaningless hedonism of youth. But what is this book for? A case of arrested political development, it brings Welsh into closer alignment with genre fiction, at the same time as disclosing an apparent contempt for it—and perhaps for other writers’ brushes with it, too, as when Bruce takes exception to a colleague's description of himself as “a polis”: “What's he on about: ‘a’ polis? Daft cunt.” Conceivably the real object of displeasure here is Martin Amis, the heroine of whose recent novel Night Train risibly introduced herself as “a police”.
Like Amis, though, Welsh in a sense evades the primary requirement of the crime novel—a plot—but takes this to a logical conclusion which may seem classically Scottish in its theme of doubleness. Closer to home, Bruce Robertson might be taken as a parody of Inspector Rebus, the Edinburgh detective who is the hero of Ian Rankin's popular crime novels, and whose name and title make a near-anagram of that of the Welsh character, quite aside from the resemblance of both names to an earlier Scottish hero of ambiguous repute—all of which sounds like the sort of onanistic ingenuity towards which the brisk Welsh would appear implacably opposed, or satirically inclined. Rankin's John Rebus has the full roster of detectives’ personal problems—a troubled past as a soldier, a broken marriage, inability to sustain relationship with the opposite sex, self-dooming dislike of authority, plus chronic alcoholism, a pungently untidy flat and a retro collection of LPs. Despite all this, his dogged fidelity to justice leads him repeatedly to the truth. He asserts the indomitability of battered decency, and, as is now traditional for the detective, uncovers the corruption of business, the law and the rich. Robertson's “politics” are purely reactionary, a matter of them-and-us, movable according to context, but in terms of being a mess he trumps Rebus on every count—he drinks more, fails more, smells worse (he cannot cope with the washing machine) and may have abused his daughter. He is also afflicted with an apparently incurable skin disease spreading outward from his scrotum, not to mention a large tapeworm which from time to time intervenes in the text, at first sounding rather like Homer Simpson. There is more, and worse, but a reviewer ought not to reveal it. We spend nearly 400 pages in this rancid, rapidly degenerating company, while Robertson becomes the embodiment of his own interior disorder.
Filth is an important book for Welsh. He has suggested that it might be his last. One can see that if he continues to write, he may turn out to be a rather different writer from the one hitherto lauded as a poet of the underlife—perhaps as a superhero of the exploitation mode he has helped to spawn. In the work which has followed Trainspotting (1993), Welsh has traded on that book's virtues—pace, wild humour, brilliant management of dialogue—while revealing ever more threadbare habits of plotting. Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) refines the mixture: abusive family, drugs, disengagement, violent crime, nemesis, phantasmagoria, with the protagonist (a victim of his uncle's sexual abuse) apparently murdered in his hospital bed by a rape victim who castrates him and shoves his penis into his mouth. In the novella A Smart Cunt from The Acid House (1994), the hero-junkie-murderer discovers too late that, contrary to his father's claims, his mother has been trying to contact him for years but has now burnt to death in a house fire. Worse, in the three novellas in Ecstasy (1996), Welsh seems to be trading on his undeniable readability to distract the reader from the perfunctoriness of the material. With Filth, he has gone back to work, but grim accuracy is clearly struggling to fend off the melodrama and brutal sentimentality which come in the wake of intellectual laziness. These are the characteristics of genre fiction—as, too, is the wholesale employment of “issues” for bulk rather than serious engagement with their meanings. What is racism to this novel? Something endemic to the culture of the police. Sexism? Ditto. Self-hatred? The poison generated by psychic misery. The author merely asserts his grasp of these things without dramatizing them, and as a result for-goes whatever imaginative sympathy the reader might have brought to the novel and its unsavoury central figure. We go out no wiser than we came in, nothing with consternation that Welsh has done what he seemed immune to and produced a book which is not merely predictable but finally boring.
What Welsh is evading, or missing, is the kind of political fiction-of-consciousness of which Rankin, faithful to his genre, necessarily falls short. Somewhat occluded by Welsh's success in recent years, James Kelman has written an exemplary book of this kind, A Disaffection (1989). Like Welsh's work, A Disaffection is at times very funny, for example when the lovelorn hero—a teacher: imagine that—retires to the pub with a hard-to-explain mixture of vomit and sawdust in his trouser-cuffs. Kelman, though, minutely attentive to the stuff of desperate ordinariness, is utterly free of the notion of glamour to which Welsh, even on the grimmest occasions, seems prey. For Kelman, the world as it is provides enough peculiarity and tension without him sugaring the soundtrack. Welsh's may be a generational weakness, akin to the indulgent self-fascination of the drug-taker or the unshockable style-magazine-led postmodernist, both types who are easily able to mistake partial anaesthesia for seriousness. If so, it is tempting to pursue the analogy a bit further and note that Welsh's affinities with popular music remind us how hard it is for a band to sustain the ungoverned, uproarious energy which creates the brilliant debut, and how grim it is to witness the decline into empty competence and worse. Welsh has the talent for something much better than Filth, but it will require some replenishment of ideas as well as attitudes if he is to achieve it. Forty seems a good age at which to start.
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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 book's antihero, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, extorts fellatio from an angelic underage girl after discovering a cache of Ecstasy pills in her bag. Climaxing, Robertson breaks wind: “I’m farting oot loads ay gas, it's burning my eyes. The power of that Lauriston Place Curry Hoose's vindaloo! … She's choking, but I haud her heid steady until I’m ready, then I withdraw my cock from her miserable torn face, stuff it in my troosers, zip up and leave her to her tears. … I go through the lobby leaving the wee slut to soak up that distinctive curry, Guinness and [semen] atmosphere.”
Filth is a novel that starts with a fart, ends with a bowel evacuation, and whose only moral voice emanates from the tapeworm lurking inside Robertson's colon. But then Welsh's fiction has never been polite or pretty. He's peopled all of his books—Trainspotting, The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance—with characters too unsavory for the sedate drawing room of English literary fiction: junkies, soccer hooligans, Ecstasy-abusing ravers, petty criminals, and other species of British lowlife spawned during the Thatcher-Major government's 18-year-long project of systematically transforming a united, unionized working class into an auto-destructive lumpen proletariat.
Although Welsh has received recognition from the transatlantic literary establishment, he relishes the role of enfant terrible (albeit a babyfaced 40-year-old enfant). Good reviews don’t matter to him because his first book, Trainspotting found a fiercely loyal readership largely through word of mouth. Research by his publishers has shown that a hefty proportion of Welsh's audience doesn’t read any fiction at all, apart from books by himself and kindred spirits like Morvern Callar author Alan Warner. Welsh regards these postliterati as more competent readers than professional critics, because they have first-hand experience of the subcultural realms he documents: drug-and-dance culture, crime, the black economy, welfare subsistence. He now admits that his last book Ecstasy was deeply flawed, because so many of these ordinary “punters” came up “and told me, ‘That was total shite, man.’” Welsh smiles, seemingly relishing this blunt feedback.
Instant success, money, and the translation of his works into other media have made Welsh supremely indifferent to his critical reception. But his hostility toward the London literary world still burns ardently. “You get all these fucking 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.”
For a long time, “the enemy”—middle class, Oxbridge educated—was incarnated in the form of Martin Amis. Superficially, Amis and Welsh seem to have much in common: a sharp eye and nose for the textures of squalor, a menagerie of spiritually bankrupt protagonists, an obsession with the myriad shades of the English slanguage. But there's a crucial difference. From Amis's detached vantage point of privilege, the British class system and its attendant grotesqueries merely afford frightful amusement. If you’re writing from somewhere closer to the bottom of the social heap, though, the stakes are higher, the reality of wasted potential and distorted lives all to raw and personal.
Welsh grew up in an Edinburgh housing scheme, the equivalent of the projects. At school, the notion of writing as vocation was unthinkable: “Back then, the idea of someone being a writer, you’d think of graffiti spraypainted on the walls,” he notes wryly. Welsh's artistic impulses gravitated toward music; for several years he messed around in postpunk bands in Edinburgh and London, flitting between “crap jobs and the dole” and getting “fucked up with drugs, specifically heroin and speed.” In the late '80s he swung to the other extreme, straightening himself out and getting on a career track: he worked in local government, took a degree in business management, began to set up a consultancy firm, even dabbled in real estate speculation.
But then the UK's rave explosion—triggered by acid house music and Ecstasy—began to lure him from the straight-and-narrow. Gradually, he got swept up in the mass bohemia of the dance-and-drug culture. And he started writing stories, partly to alleviate the tedium of an office job, but also to cope with the comedown phase after the frenzied high of the weekend. “It's good to write on a drug comedown,” he says. “You almost reach that transcendental place where you’ve got away from how fucking bad you feel. For me, writing was a way of trying to keep the rave vibe and the experience going a bit into the working week.”
Although the euphoric utopianism of the early days of rave has deeply affected him, Welsh's stories never conceal the motor behind the incandescent vitality of working-class leisure: desperation. To borrow the title of perhaps his most autobiographical story, Welsh is A Smart Cunt—a working-class autodidact too clever not to see through the safety valves (booze, football fanaticism, loveless sex, drugs) and inverted snobberies that hold the working class together in dismal complicity with their own oppression, yet perversely loyal to his social and regional roots. Although Welsh now lives in London with his wife, the Edinburgh underclass dialect will always be his truest literary voice; he still keeps an apartment in his home town.
In person, Welsh has a thick Scottish accent but he rarely resorts to the pungent slang that peppers his books; he comes off as unpretentiously erudite. Early publicity photos played up his barbarian-at-the-gates-of-literature outsider chic, making Welsh look menacing, misshapen and faintly psychopathic. In the flesh, he's actually rather handsome; with his ageless, Tin Tin-like face bobbing atop a tall, willowy physique, he resembles a cherubic skinhead. Dressed in slip-on shoes, jeans, white baseball cap, and striped T-shirt with a pair of sunglasses clipped onto its neckline, Welsh looks the picture of relaxation—just a regular guy on vacation. Only the faded tattoo on his arm—not a trendy nouvelle one but a skull in a harlequin's cap—hints at his street-credible past.
“Filth” is British slang for police, but as a title it seems to acknowledge Welsh's place in the counter-canon of literary abjection. Céline seems an obvious reference point: there's the same first-person, fear-and-self-loathing p.o.v., the same coarse vernacular, the same compulsion to make language “throb rather than reason.” Like Céline's Journey to The End of the Night, Filth is also a lacerating anatomy of masculine psychology, a dissection of paranoia, misogyny, and spite.
Instead of doing his detective job (the plot concerns a mysterious homicide that may be racially motivated), Robertson devotes most of his energy to what he calls “the games”—the artful engineering of humiliations and career setbacks for his friends and colleagues. His keenest pleasure is schadenfreude (perverse delight in others’ misfortunes), but he can't wait for it to occur naturally—he ensures it happens. “Every cunt has their Achilles’ heel, and I always make a point of remembering my associates’ ones. Something that crushes their self-image to a pulp.”
Robertson is such a powerful character, so queerly and corrosively charismatic, that as I plunged deeper into Filth I found myself becoming a progressively nastier person: shorttempered, brusque on the phone, malevolentminded. Which begs the question: If reading Filth is a corrupting experience, what can it have been like to write it?
“It was horrible,” laughs Welsh. “I was pretty difficult to be around when I was writing the novel. And what was really weird was, I had this big sty come out around my eyelid. I couldn’t get rid of it, I tried for a year, all different creams, but it kept getting bigger. It might have been something as simple as repetitive eye strain from banging away on the VDU. But I do think it was psychosomatic, all the horrible stuff coming out, ‘cos as soon as I typed the end, it just went. … But y’know, there's actually a perverse delight in writing about somebody you hate. You hate his racism, his sexism, even his music taste, everything about him. But when you dive into that kind of cesspool, it's quite creepy, because you do get into it. You have to, to make it believable.”
Softspoken, subdued, a real gentle man—it's hard to imagine Welsh accessing the kind of monstrous psychic muck that fuels Robertson's careening trajectory through the novel. A prime inspiration for the character came from a nightwatchman Welsh once worked with. “He’d have these really dodgy, beaten-down, broken-up women come and visit him. And he was just unromittingly misogynistic. But when you’re with someone like that for eight hours on a late shift, you do get pulled into the awfulness of his world.”
Robertson is a creature of compulsions and cravings, vainly trying to staunch the insatiable void within. A typical day consists of any or all of the following: endless snacks on fat-saturated sausage rolls and bacon butties; starting an evil rumor about a fellow employee by daubing graffiti on the toilet wall; fiddling his overtime forms; making an obscene phone call to his best friend's wife, as part of a long-term scheme to ruin said best friend's life; enjoying an adulterous liaison, possibly involving erotic auto-asphyxiation; clawing the itchy rash on his buttocks and thighs until blood is drawn; getting drunk at the Masonic lodge; taking a cab home (remembering always to pay the driver the exact fare, no tip, and to savor the disappointment on his face), then passing out while ogling a porn video.
Although Robertson is constantly numbing himself or hyperstimulating himself, and halfway through the narrative develops a coke habit, Filth is less concerned with drug culture than any of Welsh's previous books. There is a sense, though, that Robertson's soul is pure cocaine—insofar as that drug makes every vice attractive and stimulates every appetite (except hunger). “Cocaine is the ultimate consumer capitalist drug,” nods Welsh. “And Robertson's got that ideology of pure consumption. You can see that in the worm as well,” he adds, referring to the tapeworm whose thoughts interrupt the text, and which evolve from blind id-like voracity (“eat eat”) to super ego-like meditations on the psychological damage that made Robertson into the walking catastrophe that he is.
The drugs featured in Welsh's previous books—heroin in Trainspotting Ecstasy in The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares—all retain some aura of Romantic utopianism. These chemicals are sacraments of dissident subcultures, surrogates for thwarted dreams of social transformation. If these drugs can't change the world, they can at least change the way some individuals walk through the world: In Marabou, a soccer thug for whom “swedgin’” (hand-to-hand combat) is “my dancing” is transformed into a New Man thanks to the egomelting power of Ecstasy and rave music. But Robertson and his coke-fiend detective partner Lennox don’t want to get in touch with their inner child. Lennox tells an Ecstasy dealer that he never takes pills: “Tried them once, but they didnae go wi the job. Made me feel too good aboot everybody. Nae use in my game.”
Filth's shift to cocaine—a drug that gives the user the illusion of control—parallels a departure in Welsh's writing. In the past, he's dealt with the dispossessed and disenfranchised; now, for the first time, he's exploring the psychology of power and privilege. Robertson is a class traitor: he grew up in a coal mining community, but joined the police around the time of the doomed miners’ strike of 1984 because he wanted to join the power rather than fight it. Robertson lovingly recalls wielding his truncheon against union pickets and is eager to participate in a raid on a commune of anarcho-hippy ravers.
Robertson is the anti-raver: someone who (initially, at least) thrives on his own self-alienation and who regards techno music as a threat to the British way of life. Instead, he listens to heavy metal. Some of the funniest passages in Filth involve Robertson's earnest musings about the metal canon and the relative merits of specific albums by Deep Purple and Saxon—a subject Welsh seems suspiciously well informed about, although he claims he gleaned it all from a metal maniac friend. “I think I’ll refuse to sell the film rights to Filth cos I’d hate the fucking album that’d be made out of it!” he guffaws, nearly choking on what passes for bruschetta in England. “The soundtrack would fucking kill me!”
Although dance music and Ecstasy figure only on the periphery of Filth Welsh continually alludes to rave culture as an analogy for what he does stylistically. He talks of trying to engage the attention-depleted, overstimulated sensorium of the postliterate generation, kids who’ve grown up on an entire spectrum of “rush culture” which bypasses meaning and instead works through sonic, visual, and tactile sensation.
“Special effects blockbuster films, or theme parks with bigger rides, they’re all really rushfix, adrenaline-buzz oriented. These strong psychoactive buzzy things, whether it's computer games or drugs, are all part of this pure escapist culture—people trying to outrun the nastiness in society, the disequilibrium in people's lives today.” Welsh says that these days he's more enthused about writing for television or the silver screen (a movie version of The Acid House is due out early in 1999), and eagerly anticipates the outmoding of the traditional novel by the interactive book. CD-ROM novels that interface with sound and visuals, and offer readers multiple plot options. “The idea of the Book isn’t that appealing to me right now,” he shrugs. “I’m getting to that state where I think I’ve said everything in that format.”
As part of his determination to catch up with the aural and optical intensities of music and film, Welsh has been experimenting with literary form for some time: breaking up the text in a manner akin to split-screen cinema for some of the Acid House stories; deploying different typefaces and multiple tiers of narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares; superimposing the tapeworm's monologue over the main text in Filth. “For me, the process of the book is as important as the content—the process of how people engage with it. It goes back to rave music. Because of drugs and music, but also because of advertising and soundbites, people want to be engaged. Something's got to happen on every page in books. So when you get all these critics moaning about the death of the novel, the only reason is ‘cos nothing's happening there. There's no point in describing what it's like watching the sun come up. What people want is almost like a steady beat to the writing. For me the device that works is using the dialect, both in narrative and dialogue,’cos it's a very rhythmic, performative type of language,” he says, comparing his use of it to the pulsating drive and flow-motion aesthetic of a great DJ.
Yet for all his scabrous subject matter and formal experiments, the pleasures of a Welsh novel are in some ways quite traditional—great characters, ring-of-truth dialogue, gripping plots, psychological insight, even moral weight (albeit voiced by a worm in the butt). He might loudly disdain traditional literary virtues as effete, enervated, and irrelevant, he might seek to align himself with more commercially viable sectors of pop culture, but in truth, Welsh's writing operates on a higher plane than the cheap thrills of Godzilla or Mortal Kombat. Discussing the British boom in clubbing-and-drugging fiction that he almost singlehandedly catalyzed, Welsh comes close to acknowledging this. “I don’t think you can think of yourself as a ‘rave writer,’” he says, wincing at the cliché often applied to him. “If you haven’t got characterization and storyline, it doesn’t matter what culture you come from or how clued up you are.”
And then, as if to prove he really is the “rave author” after all, Welsh slips out of his seat and is dancing again to the pounding beat of his own record—shimmying with rubber-limbed fluency, giving me a thumbs-up sign and cheeky grin.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1398
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 Trainspotting (1993). His first novel assaults the inflected rhythms of the native tongue with a Scottish slang that, with patience, furnishes a habitable aural space. In Trainspotting, Welsh imagines an often brutal place, roamed by the horse-warped whose imaginations contract to encircle the new fix. Here, the man groping for his junk in an unflushed toilet bowl gags only as he rinses his arm clean at the faucet. Here also is the remarkable intimacy of a young girl's startled vision of a father risen from the dead; with such combinations, the repugnant in Welsh is often paired with the familiar, making his work impossible to disown. In this and subsequent works, Welsh's language was a glottal mélange of primitive-sounding utterances and postmodern slangs, reduced in the loll of a chemical daze to a spat-up clot of enchanting sounds.
Welsh has retained this distinctive locale in Filth, but it reads differently. With this novel, the prose is largely cleansed of lingual obstacles; it reads more breezily and aspires higher than he can manage the slang to say. In the attempt, Welsh risks his known strength for the securities of the conventional novel, in which the author develops a character as if setting a mechanical trap. Plot events and other people meander near, and the trap is sprung near the close; events reach a climax, and our picture of how this character works is completed. Welsh completes and explains Robertson by hauling in childhood trauma and neglectful parents, an unimaginative contemporary cure-all that explains too much and completes too little.
Welsh's often-captivating novel opens and closes with stingingly specific deaths and is most powerful at the midpoint between them. Nominally, Filth is a murder mystery that kicks off with the first death, and the stabilizing, low-maintenance frame of an unsolved killing frees Welsh to write his version of what makes and drives a life. This is the fascination around which Filth circles, whose pages pit the unstable character Bruce Robertson against the incompleteness of a murder. If Welsh is faithful to the form, something has to show up to conclude the frolic here. Eventually something does, and Welsh has been better faithless.
The quality of the story's framing deaths supplies an index to the progress of the novel. The first murder is of an unidentified African man and is rendered in Welsh's particularly antic carnality. A flourish of “skooshes,” brain spatterings and the involuntary excretions issued with the final throe demonstrate Welsh's unique, and persuasive, take on literary candor. The first death comes by a blow to the head; the second is a suicide, a blow within the head. This movement, from murder to sucide, is the making, and unmaking, of Bruce Robertson, detective inspector, Edinburgh and Lothians Police, mid-30s, left alone by his wife and daughter, sinking from the start.
Robertson appears first as an effusing body. He is hung over at an office briefing; his “bowels are as greasy as a hoor's chuff at the end of a shift.” He establishes presence by farting “silently, but [I] move swiftly to the other side of the room,” thereby lacing the confined airspace with the novel's second whodunit. Later, we learn of Robertson's testicular and anal eczema, a skin-chipping rash that wafts a trousers-tapped stench and at which he “claw[s] feeling a delicious liberation as the wound tears and pulsates.” Robertson, then, is afflicted flesh, moving about town, patrolling for chuff to ease his stiffening “wedding kit,” coke to soothe the nerves, beer and whiskey for a disruptive gullet. In these stretches, Welsh's rhythmic lope is at its easiest and most relaxed, particularly as Robertson and a friend, Clifford Blades, decamp for an Amsterdam vacation. Among these incidents, Welsh exercises a prose style he has refined to a terse, invasive, intimate and corrupting poetry—the unmistakable fluency of a writer in the residence of his language.
Robertson's private sneer is divorced from his public grin. Expectedly, his head simmers with misanthropy (“I hate them all … criminals, spastics, … strikers, thugs, I don’t [expletive deleted] care; it all adds up to one thing: something to smash”), racist cynicism (“The race card is just one of the cards in the pack and if you’re serious about the game you utilize that full pack as and when you need to”) and other probably uncataloged varieties of contempt, disgust and loathing.
Yet, when he addresses Toal, his superior, or his colleague Drummond, he is nothing if not proper: cordial, composed, measured, even solicitous. The instrumental advantages of public manners keep Robertson a player in the social game—and “the games are always, repeat, always, being played” he reminds—which he manipulates with a ruthless and self-serving proficiency. So far, Welsh delivers a fairly recognizable duplicity, a pathological narcissism as common to an office as a photo cube.
A long-quaking ache in the Robertson gut is diagnosed as tape-worm, which “speaks” from within a nicely contrived typographical biology lodged in the Robertson gut: “00000eating eating feed me my Host00000.” The worm serves as a spokesman who condenses Robertson's inner Hobbes down to its appetitive essence: Feed me. In the course of these developments, Robertson's estranged wife, Carole, supplies her sentimental recollections of Bruce as a kind, intuitive, gentle father and husband whose bracing sexual tutorials, she believes, have been edifying. “[M]y soul is a very sexual one. You cannot deny your nature. Bruce taught me that.”
At this stage, about midway through Filth, the novel achieves an absorbing power, drawn from the indeterminancy—the competing, contradictory depictions—of the character Bruce Robertson. It is a difficult move to make and is rarely done successfully, but it opens the novel form onto refreshing possibilities, which Welsh too early retracts.
The tapeworm is expelled, and Carole's contributions cease. What replaces them is a schizophrenic blend of the voices, both sentimental and charmless, that drones dismal platitudes and playback sermons on things like Bruce's unrealized participation in the human community. The novel spoils utterly, as Robertson's world-spirit begins to argue with his conscience. He recounts Bruce's difficult childhood, an early love lost, an indifferent father.
It is the voice that retails the bitter root of his grief. “Your father was a shadow when you were a child. There was no warmth or tenderness coming from him,” and it appeals to his capacity for kindness. “Let us curse any unfair and unjust society … that chooses to punish … goodness.” It is jarring, to find such a murmur gladhanding beneath Bruce's deliciously craven, interior monologue.
The early murder—never more than a peripheral concern in Filth—is solved with efficient dispatch, and Robertson's suicide, while not expected, is emotionally jarring. Welsh has energetically and haltingly brought an original novel into partial view. The novelties of dialect and frank carnality upon which his early fame was staked—both now rightly considered his signature—may evolve as essential flourishes to the deeper inscription he has attempted here. As for Bruce's nascent humanity? The Bolton tape gets eaten, in the faulty mechanism of his cassette player.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746
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 literary chit-chat or, sometimes, by police who vaguely recall his face and assume it belongs on a soccer thug register. He loathes intrusion, shuns publicity and has agreed to drop round for a rare interview partly because he is keen to talk about the Scottish elections.
Not that he will be voting. “I can't, because I’m in London. Anyway, I can't remember the last time I voted in any election. People in Scotland want the parliament but don’t give a toss about the elections. They think they will reward Labour for delivering. For the SNP it's a no-lose situation. If it doesn’t work out, they can say it's a tied parliament. If it does, they can say that Scotland has shown its expertise in governing its affairs.”
Although not a Salmond man (“I couldn’t vote for him: he's a Hearts supporter”), Welsh (Hibs) sees himself as a post-nationalist, convinced that British identity is “in terminal decline” and that the ultimate future for Scotland is full independence. In the shorter term, he is buoyed up by the hope of more cultural vibrancy but still moderately pessimistic. “The worst-case scenario is that the parliament will be crap … You always get an oligarchy that creams it off for themselves. There is such a moribund infrastructure of deadbeats and conmen in the Labour Party that has dominated politics in central Scotland for so long. I’d be absolutely astonished if these people didn’t manage to push their noses in the trough and dominate. Hopefully not. But as someone who has worked for local authorities in Scotland, you always live in fear that will happen.”
The Prufrock phase of Welsh's life began when he became a clerk in the Edinburgh council housing department; a job he took after he had weaned himself off heroin. In the past, Welsh has been cagey about his time as a drug user, but he is eager now to trawl through his past. He was born in 1958 in Leith, the son of a docker and a waitress, and grew up in the thin prefabs of Muirhouse—a soulless dumping ground for tenement families. In his account he first appeared in court at the age of eight, for playing football in the street, and he was a proto-junkie who “bought Airfix kits, threw away the plane and inhaled the glue”.
After leaving school underqualified and almost innumerate, he drifted between Scotland and London—working as a TV repairman, sleeping rough, playing the guitar and, in an Orwellian interlude, washing dishes in a restaurant. Though he does not put it so, Welsh also hedged his bets. He gradually acquired a portfolio of useful qualifications—from a City and Guilds certificate in electrical engineering to an MBA from Heriot-Watt. In addition, he majored in crime and drugs. While he paints this spell as a typical skid row, there is some sense that his odyssey—a career of shoplifting and break-ins fuelled by cannabis, LSD, amphetamines and heroin—was less a nemesis than a research programme.
Certainly his three years on heroin do not seem to have brought him to the verge of ruin. “What stopped me getting really bad was having crap veins,” he says, but you suspect there was some other factor—a rigid self-control that allowed him, now as then, to veer between wild binges and asceticism, between self-destruction and self-interest. He implies some unease about his credentials to write Trainspotting, which was admired by those cosily distanced from the drugs underworld but regarded with mistrust by some who recognised their own misery. “I’ve known people who’ve been junkies for 25 years, and they say: ‘How could you write this book? You were only on smack for five minutes.’ I felt I’d been on it for long enough.”
Other things make Welsh defensive. He loathes being portrayed as a Rousseauesque noble savage—“a thick fucker from a council estate”—but he is also scornful of his rating, in an Observer/Channel 4 pre-election survey, as the 43rd most powerful man in Scotland. “There's the need to convince people that this is some kind of pluralistic society, so they string a few writers read by younger or more working-class people in with the mercantile classes.”
The irony is that many in the golfing and business nexus would envy Welsh his new affluence. His latest novel, Filth—about a corrupt, sex-crazed, racist, woman-hating detective—sold 250,000 copies in six months and Miramax has bought the film rights. A film of his novel The Acid House has just been released in Australia. Ecstasy, a trio of novellas, is out in Europe, and Welsh—hugely prolific—is now billed as a multi-millionaire. “You’re joking,” he says, faintly embarrassed by his wealth. “I see reports of how loaded I am, but it's only in the past two years that I’ve started to make any serious money. There was this big fuss when I bought a flat in the New Town in Edinburgh. It was £120,000. You don’t buy that if you’re a millionaire.”
Welsh splits his life between Edinburgh and a second flat in Stoke Newington, north London, whose anonymity suits him. He is fantastically prim about his private life, refusing to confirm even that he is married, and phobically nervous of the press (“I won’t speak to tabloids”). A despiser of small talk, Welsh is expert at large talk. He writes, he claims, in Edinburgh vernacular chiefly because he can't spell, and his conversation—a shambles of “sortalikes” and “kindalikes”—veers between stream-of-consciousness rambles and nuggets of pith. “There's fuck all to say about my books other than what's written in them,” he once beerily told the Sydney Writers’ Festival, weary of being branded the authentic voice of the chemical generation and the dispossessed.
Now an inevitable backlash has begun, and Welsh—funny, dangerous and once almost universally acclaimed—is reviewed in cooler terms. His play, which closed after a fortnight when the lead actor slipped two discs, had particularly terrible notices. Welsh is sanguine. “It's easier, in a way, for me to deal with rejection than success. If you can't be liked by really cool punters, the next best thing is to be hated by arseholes.” But Welsh—sometimes more disturbed than his critics by his subject matter—is not always so flip.
“My work is very bleak. I compartmentalise. I’ve been going through a work ethic phase, which is why I got absolutely smashed after the play. It's difficult to switch off. If you’re writing about racist, misogynistic characters in the first person, you do get quite fucked up by it.”
Others also get confused. In the run-up to the elections one Edinburgh paper wrongly claimed that he was funding the Scottish Socialist Party candidate and a week later implied, entirely erroneously, links with Combat 18. “That's a kind of class thing. People think if you’re working class, there has to be some fascist element underneath.” In fact he is well to the left of Tony Blair (“Isn’t everyone?”) and abhors the strident English nationalism emerging as a by-product of the Scottish elections. “People should be able to express their culture without getting into all that chauvinistic thing. It's ironic that the growth of Scottish nationalism has precipitated in the English the sort of hand-wringing the Scots have always done over who they are.”
He now foresees a wholly independent Scotland. “There's no reason not to. You get all these nonsensical arguments that it would be either absolutely impoverished or like a rich Scandinavian country. It can be what it wants. In terms of assets, no one can say it will be poor. It can be mismanaged, but so can any country.”
Welsh loves Scotland, returning frequently for his fix of clubs and football. He also acknowledges that, in terms of work, his Edinburgh past is an exhausted vein. He is unimpressed by the short stories he is now trying to write. “To be honest, they are crap. I think I’m going to throw them away. I’ve exhausted any autobiographical content, and there isn’t anything socially significant in my life now.”
He calls himself an internationalist, but the term seems to reflect not so much a wish to be a freewheeling member of the Scottish diaspora as a need to escape from a staid writer's life by recreating some vestige of the now elusive past that fuelled his best work.
“I was in Amsterdam with Howard Marks last weekend, and I had a whale of a time. There's no way I could be so uninhibited here. I have to be so much more restrained,” he laments.
It is tempting to ask Irvine Welsh—charming, tractable and politely sipping tea—exactly what kicks he finds in his wilder excursions. I would guess they are part research, part reassurance, evidence that Welsh, who has so brilliantly exploited his roots, is conscious also of the downside. Any working-class Scot who finds himself in the society columns of Elle must worry less about media prurience than the risk that he is writing himself out of his own plot.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249
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.
Owen, Frank. “Writing What You Live, Living What You Write.” New York 30, No. 22 (9 June 1997): 20.
Owen describes a night out in New York with Welsh.
Parker, Ian. “Trendspotting.” New Yorker LXXII, No. 19 (15 July 1996): 25.
In this essay, Parker gives a brief overview of Welsh as a cultural phenomenon on two continents: while the U.S. imports the much-hyped Trainspotting, British critics pan Ecstasy.
Additional coverage of Welsh's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 173.