May 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
‘The best book ever written by man or woman…it deserves to sell more copies that the Bible.’ Rebel Inc
If you’re going to grab people’s attention with a cover line, that’s the way to do it. In 1993 Irvine Welsh’s debut novel ‘Trainspotting’ was brilliantly packaged to an unsuspecting public with the title in red on a silver cover which featured two figures wearing death masks and then that quote. Kevin Williamson was the man who ran the small publishers Rebel Inc, and it was in their magazine that writers such as Alan Warner, Laura Hird and Toni Davidson were first published. It was also the first home for the work of Irvine Welsh, and it was a typical piece of Williamson hyperbole to give such good quote for the cover. The thing is, I’m sure he meant it. Because ‘Trainspotting’ isn’t a case of style over substance. Once people had their attention grabbed it was the quality of the novel that reeled them in. Reading ‘Trainspotting’ for the first time is a life changing experience, and I place the novel alongside ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for the impact it had on the people who read it. It certainly did it for me.
‘Trainspotting’ the phenomenon, by which I mean the book, the film, the soundtrack(s), the poster etc, has become so iconic that it is easy to forget how important the novel was in Scotland when it came out. It was a book for a generation who we were told didn’t read, a book which introduced readers to people and places they had either ignored, or had never encountered, a book that understood the culture of the early 1990s. Welsh’s characters were turned on, tuned in and had dropped out and there were many who recognised the reasons behind the choices made in ‘Trainspotting’, even if the lives themselves were unfamiliar.
What else ‘Trainspotting’ heralded was Scottish writing that reflected Scotland’s situation politically. After all the years of Conservative rule despite constantly, overwhelmingly, voting otherwise ‘Trainspotting’ caught the frustrations and understandable apathy of a large percentage of the population who felt that if there is no way you can affect change, why bother trying. It should be noted that not all Scots writers felt that this was the appropriate response to Tory rule from Westminster. Also published in 1993 was Iain Banks’ ‘Complicity’ which is one of the most graphically violent, and angriest, novels to have come out of Scotland and portrays a very different reaction to Scotland’s social and political problems. In that year Banks was the Hunter S. Thompson to Welsh’s William Burroughs.
The structure of ‘Trainspotting’ betrays the short stories from which much of it was formed. It is split into seven sections and multiple narrators. The fact that Welsh manages to work these disparate voices and stories together to make it a coherent whole is testament to his skill, and there is no doubt that this broken form of narrative (some sections are first person, some are third) adds to the confusing but exhilarating feel that the novel has. If there’s a storyline or a character that is not for you, then there’ll be another one along in a minute. But this also hints at the problem with a lot of his later fiction. His most successful writing post ‘Trainspotting’ can be found in the four collections of Welsh’s short stories.
This is partly because I think the shocking nature of a lot of his fiction works best in short punchy doses. If it is spread out over a longer novel, and the characters do not provoke any sympathy, then it starts to become predictable, and a little dull. One of the reasons that ‘Porno’ is perhaps his most successful novel since ‘Trainspotting’ is due to the fact that the reader is reintroduced to characters that they have met previously, and, due to the film’s success, can visualise them clearly whether they like it or not. It also allowed Welsh to return to the structure of ‘Trainspotting’.
Irvine Welsh’s greatest success lies in his use of language. His ear for dialogue, his fantastic ability to make banter and abuse believable (never an easy thing) is the main reason for ‘Trainspotting’s success. The best writers of dialogue manage to pull off a difficult balancing act of portraying characters whose patter is close enough to what the reader experiences to make it credible, but slightly better, sharper and funnier. Welsh writes not as a group of friends actually are, but how they might like to be. There is a rhythm to the language that makes it so quotable. Think of the famous sections such as ‘Choose Life’, ‘Fuckin failures in a country ay failures’ and even the opening line ‘The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’ It’s poetic. It must be this that makes fans of ‘Trainspotting’ hold the book in the affection that we do as the characters are actually, on the whole, a despicable bunch, yet we want to read on.
The cast of ‘Trainspotting’ are selfish, sad, horrific or a combination of all three. Yet there is a sense of shared experience and a gang mentality, their names only highlighting this. Rent Boy, Sick Boy, Tommy Gun, Second Prize, Spud, Franco ‘the beggar’ Begbie, each central character has their own characteristics used as badges. Even that fact that Davie Mitchell doesn’t have an alternative nickname tells us a lot about his perceived status. The names give the reader clues as to where each character stands in this (anti)-social group.
It appears that they need each other yet despise, or at least disrespect each other. The fact that Renton is nominally the hero of the piece is difficult to marry with his final deception (and, unlike the film, his recompensing of Spud is only suggested). But what should we expect from someone who can justify shagging his widowed sister in-law at her husband’s, and his brother’s, funeral. It’s a masterful piece of writing to make us care for Renton, although perhaps it is only done by comparison to the others.
The ear for language that Welsh has suggests he was certainly tuned in, and ‘Trainspotting’ is packed with reference to music; David Bowie, Simple Minds, The Velvet Underground and The Fall are only a few of the acts regularly mentioned. In the ‘Exile’ section of the novel there is a chapter named after The Smiths song ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and the detailed musical references help set the novel, and give it an authentic feel. But it is Iggy Pop who is the musical hero and Welsh understands that sometimes people follow musicians like they follow their football teams. If they make a bad record or career move then it is ok for those who follow them to make comment, but they’ll defend them to the death if others were to do so. Even when they decide to sell insurance.
It is this immersion in popular culture, married with brilliantly quotable dialogue, which made ‘Trainspotting’ perfect for film adaptation and in hind sight it is no wonder that the film became as huge as it did. It appears that from the last twenty years the two images of Scotland that have endured around the world are ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Braveheart’. At least that’s how it seems when I talk to overseas students who wind up in Glasgow. If I’m mistaken then please let me know.
‘Trainspotting’ made the Booker Prize long list for 1993, but the story goes that it upset two of the female judges. Why the sex of the judges offended needed to be made public is unclear, but it does lead me to touch on my biggest problem with Irvine Welsh’s work. For as much as I love ‘Trainspotting’, there is much of his later work that I really dislike. I want to stress that his ear for language endures, he can still turn a phrase, or abuse a pal, better than any other Scottish writer, and this makes the situation all the more annoying. I’m not even bothered that scenes of depravity have become more extreme as the novels progress. It is his treatment of women in his work that sticks in my craw. It may not be as obvious in ‘Trainspotting’ as it is in ‘Filth’, ‘The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs’ or, most notably, ‘Marabou Stork Nightmares’, but it is suggested and I leave it up to you to decide if his writing can become misogynistic, or is merely misanthropic as the man himself claims it to be. But maybe that’s for another time and another column.
‘Trainspotting’ has left a lasting legacy, and one that is far more positive than many would give it credit for, and this is due to a mix of language and representation. Working class Scots in novels was nothing new by the nineties, but it had tended to have a west coast lilt. Most readers found the language that Welsh used difficult at first, but once you had got used to the phonetic spelling, and had become accustomed to the rhythm, it became a joy to read. People compare his use of Scots dialect to that of James Kelman, but Kelman’s language is more of a mix of Standard English and Scots. Perhaps Kelman needed to write first to allow Welsh and others to follow, but ‘Trainspotting’ was a step up from what we had read before and presented Scotland with a new written Scots.
Irvine Welsh managed to pull off the trick of writing a book that not only the people he wrote about wanted to read, but had mass appeal, and his success helped to pave the way for some of the best Scottish writers of the next decade, writers who may not have had a chance to be widely read otherwise. For all the criticism that may come his way that alone should make him proud as it’s a hell of a legacy to leave.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.
Next month’s novel: It’s rare to discover a completely new voice in Scottish Literature, and Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’ was just that. Some have argued that the novel is crime fiction, as if that is an accusation. Actually, ‘The Cutting Room’ was the gothic thriller that the city of Glasgow had been crying out for. With the central figure of Rilke Louise Welsh had written a convincing gay male character that was also rare to the distinctly straight world of Scottish fiction. Rilke’s sexuality, while central to his life and the plot, is dealt with in a way that leaves cliché and stereotype behind.
Louise Welsh takes the reader into a world that they may have never even considered existed, and the pace of ‘The Cutting Room’ is relentless.
Next 5 books:
- Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
- Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
- Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
- Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)
- Anne Donovan Buddha Da (Sept)