Irvine Welsh Welsh, Irvine - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Sean O’Brien (review date 1 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jenny Turner (review date 2 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nicholas Clee (review date 18 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Shaun Whiteside (review date 1 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nick Hornby (review date 28 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 28 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Allison (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James DeRossitt (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tobias Jones (review date 28 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tim Adams (review date 2 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mick Imlah (review date 7 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Pat Kane (review date 7 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Simon Reynolds (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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James Lasdun (review date 23 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charlotte Innes (review date 18 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Walter Kirn (review date 19 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Jane Mendelson (review date 2 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rex Roberts (review date 16 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James R. Merikangas (review date December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lyall Bush (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Zamsky (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bert Cardullo (review date July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Alan Taylor (review date 9 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sean O’Brien (review date 14 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Simon Reynolds (review date 15 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kurt Jensen (review date 20 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Irvine Welsh with Mary Riddell (interview date 3 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 249 words.)