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.”