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The Fiction of Irvine Welsh

By Diane Peters,2014-01-29 06:35
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Irvine Welsh: the Novels Matt McGuire

Since the publication of Trainspotting in 1993, Irvine Welsh has produced seven novels,

    three collections of short stories and a variety of works for stage and screen. This range of creative outputs, coupled with a prolific level of commercial success, has transformed Welsh from a mere novelist into what the critic Robert Morace terms „a cultural

    1 The major publications on Welsh to date, Kelly (2005) and Morace phenomenon‟.

    (2007), ask us to examine the authors work within this wider critical context. The

    current chapter then is an attempt to paddle against the current of recent criticism and focus on the author‟s fictional development. It seeks to chart the enduring

    preoccupations of all seven Welsh novels: Trainspotting, Marabou Stork Nightmares

    (1995), Filth (1998), Glue (2001), Porno (2002), The Bedroom Secrets of the Master

    Chefs (2006) and Crime (2008). It surveys a thematic landscape that will be excavated more fully in subsequent chapters of the Companion. This chapter will highlight key

    issues within Welsh‟s work. These include representations of class and the author‟s own

    contribution to the evolution of the working-class novel. The treatment of gender and the depiction of drugs, violence and criminality will also be examined. As will the formal experimentalism of Welsh‟s writing. His evolution, from the fragmented and episodic

    narratives of Trainspotting to the more predictable plots of later novels, will be placed within a broader discussion of the novel as a literary form. Welsh‟s interest in genre,

    particularly those associated with mass market fictions like the romance novel and the detective story, will also be addressed. We will consider to what degree the author‟s

    work might itself be regarded as a genre in its own right. After the huge success of

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    Trainspotting is Welsh merely writing to order, reproducing his own highly stylised form of pulp fiction?

    Trainspotting is a book that barely needs an introduction. Nevertheless, it is ironic to examine Welsh‟s fiction by beginning with a text that early critics were reluctant to describe as a novel. For Michael Brockington it was „hard to call it a novel, more a ragged accretion of short stories‟; Sarah Hemming referred to „a series of unrelated

    2 Such episodes‟; and Lucy Hughes-Hallett described a work „broken up into fragments.‟

    statements accord with Welsh‟s own views about the anti-literary qualities of his work: „I

    don‟t have any literary heroes at all […] I don‟t take references from other writers, but

    from lyrics, from videos and soap operas and stuff. I try and keep as far away from “the

    3classics” […] as possible.‟ This anti-literary pose will be picked up in due course. For now we can agree that the episodic and fragmented nature of Trainspotting is crucial to

    the type of experience it is attempting to depict. The junkies, misfits and schemers that populate the novel live a highly chaotic and unpredictable existence. Unlike the film, where Ewan MacGregor‟s voiceover provides a sense of narrative continuity, the novel eschews such fixed anchor points. Less than half of the forty four, largely unrelated, episodes are told from Renton‟s point of view. The rest are narrated by Sick Boy, Spud,

    Begbie, Tommy, Rentons‟s brother, Nina and Kelly. Instead of the narrative progress of

    4an individual character the novel presents us with a community of voices. Notions of

    community would of course come under acute attack with the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the period in which the book itself is set. The decimation of heavy industry, the privatisation of public services and the liberalisation of the free-market were regarded by

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    many as a specific attack on working-class communities throughout Britain. As an ideology Thatcherism sought to discredit notions of class, arguing that the goal of society was to maximise economic efficiency. This was achieved by individuals being free to pursue their own selfish ends. This change in social values, the breakdown in community, pervades Trainspotting. In first chapter we learn that there are: „Nae friends in this game.

    Jist associates.‟ (T 6) And when baby Dawn dies and Leslie needs a hit, Renton cooks up, admitting he will look after himself first: „that goes without saying.‟ (T 56) Moreover,

    the heroin sub-culture of the 1980s is a world where sharing, as in the sharing of needles, could quite literally cost you your life. Welsh‟s fiction explores the vacuum left behind

    by the disappearance of more traditional notions of class and community. What little

    narrative trajectory there is in Trainspotting sees Renton perform an act of rampant

    individualism. At the end of the novel he commits the ultimate betrayal. He steals from his friends, turns his back on his community and flees to Amsterdam. The novel‟s

    conclusion is deeply pessimistic. In the post-Thatcherite world society cannot be improved by the actions of the individual. Instead we live a kind of economic Darwinism. The fittest survive by exploiting others and turning their weaknesses into our own competitive advantage.

    The lack of a stable vantage point mimics the experience of many characters in Trainspotting. On the socio-economic margins of society, their lives cannot be rendered by the cosy and predictable plots of bourgeois life. We witness heroin‟s utter

    annihilation of all other narratives work, family, sexual relationships and its

    replacement with the terminal logic of drug addiction. The formal politics of the novel

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then are intimately bound up with the book‟s interrogation of class. Welsh is highly

    sceptical of the bourgeois nature of traditional literary fiction, describing it as a „middle-

    5class plaything‟. Trainspotting eschews many of the traits of the traditional realist novel, particularly its use of third person narrative. In doing so it aligns itself with the textual

    6politics that underpin much recent working-class Scottish fiction. For the Glasgow

    writer James Kelman the formal politics of the realist novel are inherently elitist. The omniscient third person narrator assumes a position of authority over the text, interpreting, explaining and ultimately conferring significance upon the lives of individual characters. Trainspotting deliberately subverts such hierarchy. The characters themselves act as our guides to the world of the novel. If Welsh‟s work continues certain traditions of earlier

    working-class fiction, it also marks something of a radical departure. Trainspotting

    offered an important corrective to the Glasgow bias one that included George Friel,

    Archie Hind, William McIlvanney, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman that had existed

    within Scottish working-class fiction. At one stage Renton wryly comments: „Ah‟ve

    never met one Weedjie whae didnae think that they are the only genuinely suffering proletarians in Scotland.‟ (T 191) Welsh‟s fiction also signals a shift away from the

    depiction of lonely artists, busconductors and disaffected school teachers. His work focuses on a younger generation, characters that have never worked and in all likelihood will never work. It is their leisure time rather than their experience of work that his writing explores. There is also an important generational shift at work here. Whereas Kelman et al were publishing since the 1970s, Welsh did not make his literary debut until 1993. His work deals with a post-Thatcherite world, a place where, as New Labour

    7would soon tell us, there are no alternatives to capitalism. The novel takes its title from

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    an episode in the disused Leith central station, a place that implicitly gestures toward an industrial past that has all but disappeared. The labour based society has been replaced by the ethics of consumerism. Trainspotting rarely depicts people working. Instead,

    through their use of heroin, these characters are enthralled to a form of conspicuous consumption, a cycle of behaviour that will eventually destroys them. The heroin hit recalls the endless deferment of pleasure indicative of contemporary culture. Like the consumer, the junkie is only ever temporarily satisfied. Before long he must return for another hit, another purchase, another moment of ever diminishing fulfilment. Renton‟s

     „Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose rant

    cars…‟ (T 187) satirises the vacuous freedoms of modern consumer culture. Here happiness lies in the freedom to choose absolutely anything one wants. Such narratives of course conveniently neglect the fact that one must be able to afford these choices in the first place. Ironically of course, heroin addiction represents the nullification of choice. The addict is highly compromised in their ability to exercise free will and to choose alternative forms of behaviour.

    The depiction of drugs in Trainspotting is part of a general fascination for popular

    culture within Welsh‟s writing. For Willy Maley: „Welsh‟s influences, or effluences,

    range across contemporary film, music and television rather than resting on the [literary]

    8 This type of manoeuvre, shunning the literary in favour of the popular, pervades canon.‟

    Trainspotting: the book opens with Renton entranced by a Jean-Claude Van Damme

    video; Sick Boy spends half his time talking to and impersonating an imaginary Sean Connery; and the novel itself is peppered with references to music (Iggy Pop, The Smiths

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    and The Clash) and football, particularly the highs and lows of being a Hibs fan. On a train journey to London Begbie illustrates the divide between high and low culture, between the literary and the non-literary, in his own inimitable style: „Wir supposed tae

    be doon here fir a fuckin laugh, no tae talk aboot fuckin books n aw that fuckin shite. See if it wis up tae me, ah‟d git ivray fuckin book n pit thum on a great big fuckin pile n burn the fuckin loat.‟ (T 116) What is at stake in these attempts by Welsh to situate his book as some form of anti-novel? We might begin by questioning the author‟s attempts to

    downplay the literary qualities of his work. Episodic and fragmented narratives? Told

    inner from a variety of perspectives? And using indirect discourse to access characters

    worlds? These are the hall marks of modernist fiction such as James Joyce‟s Ulysses

    (1922) or Virginia Woolf‟s Mrs Dalloway (1925). In fact, Welsh‟s fiction might be read

    alongside The Rise of the Novel (1957) Ian Watt‟s account of the emergence of the novel

    9 In the prose writing of Daniel Defoe as a literary form in the early eighteenth century.

    Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding the strict formal requirements of poetry gave way to a more casual form of writing. Through the novel literary language comes closer to an approximation to actual speech. Moreover, these early fictions were decried in certain quarters as signaling a lowering of literary standards, a democratisation of literature and a worrying intrusion of commercial life into the artistic domain of writing. All these issues pertain to Trainspotting. In denying any literary pretence, Welsh mimics his own wily

    Mark Renton who is characterised by his ability to code shift, to assume different voices and play to different galleries. The artifice of Welsh‟s fiction can be found it its ability to

    entice both the world of urban, youth culture and that of the academic literary critic. When Welsh does focus on taboo subject matter drugs, football violence, pornography

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     he attempts to situate these phenomenon within their broader sociological context. Heroin is highly anti-social, an all consuming way of life that annihilates all other narratives. For Robert Morace: „[It is] a potent floating signifier of social pathology,

    10political dependence, and consumer capitalism.‟ When subsequent novels feature drugs

    it is as ciphers within these highly politicised, ideological debates. The anti-social nature of heroin contrasts with a more mainstream drug culture in the 1990s. In 1996 Welsh published three novellas under the title Ecstasy. In one of these stories he compares the

    ecstasy pills of club culture with the wilful escapism of romance fiction. Getting „loved

    p‟ and living for the weekend are read in terms of a temporary reprieve from the u

    everyday boredom of work life. Later in Porno it is cocaine which is used to diagnose

    the unmitigated and aggressive selfishness of capitalist Britain.

    Whilst the film of Trainspotting focuses primarily on the issue of drugs, the novel

    offers a more nuanced and expansive interrogation of working-class culture in Scotland. The themes of sectarianism and racism, central to the book, barely feature in the film. In the novel the characters sing Irish rebel songs at Begbie‟s New Year‟s party, whilst

    Renton‟s brother is killed serving as a British soldier in Northern Ireland. Trainspotting

    demonstrates the ambiguous relationship between Scottish history and narratives of colonialism. A complicity in the British imperial project exists alongside a wider sense of solidarity with other marginalised groups. Renton‟s infamous tirade that „It‟s shite

    being Scottish‟ openly appropriates the rhetoric of postcolonial theory: „It‟s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us […]. They‟re just wankers. We are colonised

    by wankers. We can‟t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by.‟ (T

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78) Scotland‟s dual status, as both victim and persecutor in the British imperial

    adventure, is most fully developed in Welsh‟s second novel Marabou Stork Nightmares.

    The book centres on Roy Strang, an Edinburgh scheme dweller who lies in a comatose state in hospital following an attempted suicide. This was Roy‟s response to the

    unbearable guilt he suffered following his participation in the brutal gang rape of a young woman, Kirsty Chalmers. The narrative oscillates between the fantasy world of Roy‟s

    imagination and his memories of growing up in Muirhouse, his temporary immigration to South Africa, and his experience as a football casual back in Edinburgh. The immigration episode of the novel juxtaposes the class politics of modern Scotland with the race discrimination of apartheid South Africa. Disempowered and marginalised at home, the Strangs learn that as whites in South Africa they assume a higher social status. This situation, however, is only temporary. The alcohol fuelled temper of Roy‟s father

    eventually gets him in trouble. He is arrested and the family is deported back to Edinburgh and Muirhouse. Roy draws equivalence between his own experience of the scheme and the life of black South Africans under apartheid: „Edinburgh to me

    represented serfdom. I realised that it was exactly the same situation as Johannesburg; the only difference was that the Kaffirs were white and called schemies.‟ (M 80) In

    separate articles Alan Freeman and Ellen-Raïssa Jackson along with Willy Maley question the suspicious ease with which Welsh‟s fiction attempts to appropriate the

    11 This deliberate suffering of one group to bolster the persecution felt by another.

    comparison of class and race evokes James Kelman‟s 1994 Booker Prize speech where

    12he described his own fiction as belonging to „a literature of decolonization.‟ It also

    echoes Roddy Doyles novel The Commitments (1989) where a group of impoverished

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    kids from a Dublin estate form an American soul band, claiming that the working-class

    13 We might also read this comparison in terms of a more are „the niggers of Ireland.‟

    general crisis within the Left. By the end of the twentieth century the language of class,

    14at least in its traditional form, is regarded in many quarters to be theoretically bankrupt.

     If Welsh‟s work deploys the discourse of race as a way of re-theorising class, it is

    also interested in how racism and other kinds of intolerance operate within working-class culture. Begbie, for example, is denigrated as someone who is: „[…] intae baseball-

    batting every fucker that‟s different: pakis, poof, n what huv ye.‟ (T 78) He represents

    the proto-typical hard man who, whilst openly castigating his friend‟s heroin use, is nonetheless addicted to his own drug: violence. Trainspotting deconstructs the myth of

    the working-class hard man, depicting Begbie as a bullying wife-beater, indulged by his friends and someone whose reputation is born out of a psychotic disregard for others rather than any skill or courage as a fighter. Marabou Stork Nightmares develops

    Welsh‟s interest in masculine violence and, similar to heroin, locate this themes within a broader sociological critique. As a child Roy‟s father has him boxing his effeminate half-

    brother Bernard. It is here that Roy‟s sense of masculinity is intimately tied to notions of

    physical aggression: „TAKE THAT YA FUCKIN SAPPY BIG POOF.‟ (M 29) We

    witness the seeds of Roy‟s adult behaviour as a casual being sown in his childhood. The

    link between masculinity and violence is a learned response to life, one that is legitimated by a particular set of socio-cultural values. Later the monotony of Roy‟s working life as

    a computer analyst is offset by the adrenalin rush of organised violence at the weekends. When exploring why young men partake in such behaviour Marabou Stork Nightmares

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candidly reminds us of its entertainment value. We might recall that Trainspotting opens

    with Renton watching his Jean-Claude Van Damme video, anticipating „some serious

    swedging‟. (T 3) In terms of a wider cultural context the action movies of the 1980s would be seceded in the 1990s with a number of highly stylised depictions of violence, including the films of Quentin Tarantino. Marabou Stork Nightmares might also be read

    in terms of the more specific questions about masculinity and violence examined in a book like Chuck Palahniuk‟s Fight Club (1996). Welsh‟s novel portrays football

    violence as a displacement activity. It is a misdirected form of retaliation, the angry outbursts of an abandoned generation of working-class men. At the end of the novel Roy meets his boss and has an epiphany about who the real target of his aggression should be: „these are the cunts we should be hurtin, no the boys wi knock fuck oot ay at the footba, no the birds we fuck aboot […] These cunts. Bit naw; we screw each other‟s hooses when they‟re fuck all in them, we terrorise oor ain people.‟ (M 201)

    If racism and homophobia are the dark underbelly of working-class culture, so too is the misogyny that Welsh finds within this world. Begbie‟s penchant for violence

    extends to his wife June who, like his friends, lives in fear of his fists. Toward the end of Trainspotting Sick Boy and Renton play a practical joke on their friend Kelly, telephoning the bar and asking for „Mark Hunt‟. Kelly‟s cries of „ANYBODY SEEN MARK HUNT‟ are met with uproar from the all male clientele and Renton realises, too

    late, that this is „lynch mob laughter.‟ (T 279) In Marabou Stork Nightmares this tension

    is graphically played out in the rape of Kirsty Chalmers by Roy and his gang. Characteristic of Welsh‟s fiction, the novel does not spare the explicit details. The author

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