Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590

Trainspotting was Irvine Welsh’s debut novel. It was published first in the United Kingdom in 1993, and in 1996 an American edition was published. Welsh lives in Edinburgh and London. He held a plethora of jobs before becoming a writer. The groundwork for Trainspotting was built in short story collections...

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Trainspotting was Irvine Welsh’s debut novel. It was published first in the United Kingdom in 1993, and in 1996 an American edition was published. Welsh lives in Edinburgh and London. He held a plethora of jobs before becoming a writer. The groundwork for Trainspotting was built in short story collections and novellas, where he told the stories of arguably interesting and disturbed characters.

Trainspotting stands out because of its creation primarily through dialogue. The dialogue consists of the characters’ Scottish-dialect conversations both with one another and with readers. Rare passages in the book are written in the traditional third person, in Standard English, easily understood by American readers. A glossary of key terms is provided to inform readers of the definitions of key slang words used throughout.

The use of characters’ dialect is an essential tool for immersing readers into Welsh’s world of junkies, prostitutes, and those who associate with them. Welsh’s plot is full of the philosophies of those on the margins of society, including the rationalizations used to make the most unconventional choices. It also incorporates many references to popular culture. The Skag Boys and their friends are fans of violent martial arts films, and their music consists of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, not the then-new genre of techno music. The world of working-class Edinburgh is home for the Skag Boys, and it is bleak. It is a world of high unemployment rates and, consequently, widespread drug abuse, prostitution, racism, and violence.

Trainspotting is, in literary terms, a picaresque novel, one that details the life of a rather unsavory male character of low social esteem who serves two masters and, through his experiences, offers a satiric critique of his society. Mark “Rents” Renton emerges as the predominant voice in the novel because his perspective is the one that allows readers the clearest glimpse into the philosophy (albeit troubled), of the heroin addict. At the same time, he points out the disturbing aspects of life in late twentieth century Edinburgh.

Mark’s two masters are himself and heroin. Instead of wanting to remain tied to his friends, Mark can think of nothing but ridding himself from them and, hopefully, from his heroin addiction in the process. This is not to say that Mark did not purposefully choose to begin taking heroin, but he maintains that he did so only because, compared to the banal choices around him, heroin was his best option.

The sections and chapters that feature Mark’s perspective move the novel. The book is full of characters who have their own dramatic moments, but the key sequences occur when Mark narrates. Welsh sets Mark up to be an unreliable narrator, as his flaws are exposed with unflinching clarity: He is a heroin addict, he hallucinates, he steals, and he is selfish. With this problematic character comes the honesty with which Mark tells his story and that of his friends and environment. Incorporating personal, political, and social perspectives, Mark’s narratives are the best-rounded in the novel.

When the story reaches areas Mark is no longer willing to discuss, Welsh inserts a third-person limited narrator to tell readers what is going on as seen through Mark’s eyes. Mark, however, is finished with his role in the novel. By the end, he is on his way to Amsterdam and cannot be bothered to comment on the Edinburgh situation further. It is through a Standard English voice that readers can “see” the most developed character in the book walk into the horizon of his own choosing.

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