The Decline of Irvine Welsh

I am currently reading Skagboys, the much-anticipated (in certain households at least) prequel to Trainspotting and the subsequent Porno. I am reading it in the same way that I read Porno – namely, knowing that it will have moments varying between decent, good and total crap. (With Welsh’s other books like Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and Glue, I didn’t have even such low expectations: Welsh’s trajectory and entire style has been agonisingly familiar after Filth). I contend that Trainspotting, The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares are all excellent books, but the decline in quality in Welsh’s subsequent work has been painful, similar to (and perhaps caused by the same factors as) the decline of bands like Guns N’ Roses, where an early energy and vitality is supplanted by a bloated pretension or grandiosity. (I still get violently angry when I think about GN’R’s fucking brass section).

The difference in quality is what I think demonstrates the difference between literature and popular fiction. Stephen King, in his excellent book on the horror genre Danse Macabre, denies the validity of this distinction, contending a snobbishness in literary critics causes them to occasionally appropriate books that had previously been thought simple popular fiction, such as… – I think he cited Richard Matheson for one. Bullshit. Literature is qualitatively different from fiction, in that fiction depends on the basic/elemental pleasures of storytelling (plot arc, characters, resolution), whereas literature depends on technique (metaphor (in the broadest sense), motifs, foreshadowing, irony, satire, framing devices etc). Fiction essentially is a great story, whereas literature tells you something about the condition of mankind. James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, a dazzling introduction to 17th century Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to land there (John Blackthorne, as based on the real-life William Adams), is a magnificent read but is essentially just a great story. On the other hand, James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners are magnificently rich in detail and symbolism, despite their surface realism. Consider the brilliance of this opening paragraph (I’ve highlighted in bold the words which are suggestive or allusive):

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

To be sure, some books are re-evaluated when, with the perspective of time, they come to take on greater significance. Charlotte Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” did not attract much attention upon publication in 1892, but subsequent readings demonstrate its subversion of patriarchal assumptions and its gothic power, and it’s now seen as an important early feminist text.

Anyway: back to Welsh. Anyone first reading Trainspotting in 1993 could not help being utterly impressed. It’s an enormously brave book, one which stood up and charged headfirst into any number of Scottish and British illusions and received opinions. It was the first novel I had ever read which faced up to Scotland’s endemic sectarianism, to the results of British military force (I hesitate to say colonialism: it’s such a loaded word; but it can certainly be viewed that way) on the people at the frontline, to the grim brutality of lives in the underclass, to the pervasive self-destructive escapism of drugs and alcohol, to the crisis of masculinity caused by the decline in heavy industries. These themes had of course been handled in some form before: William McIllvanney‘s books like Laidlaw and Docherty examine working-class masculinity, in what seems to me to be a hopelessly idealistic fashion; James Kelman, whom I discovered just after Welsh, has moderately similar subject matter but does something completely different with it, always insistent on the essential decency of his protagonists; Alexander Trocchi, naively held up as a father figure by some Scottish writers, wrote about the drug addict’s life from an explicitly intellectual-bohemian perspective, rather than from the working classes; Duncan Maclean, whose very fine collection of short stories Bucket of Tongues seemed something of a precursor to Welsh, perhaps came closest in challenging the problems of Scotland, but lacked a broader vision tying personal injustice with political . But it was Trainspotting in which these all first coalesced and exploded outwards, like nuclear fission of national rage. THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ORDINARY PEOPLE IN SCOTLAND, it screamed, AND NOBODY IN POWER GIVES A FUCK.

But this is not to say that Trainspotting is a formless rant: on the contrary, the novel is quite artful. There is a sustained philosophical subtext, whose existential implications are handled with some subtlety. While university-dropout Renton is prone to using more educated vocabulary (“on the subject of drugs, we wir classic liberals, vehemently opposed to state intervention in any form”), the subtext is made clear when he is ‘before the law’:

– Mr Renton, you did not intend to sell the books?

– Naw. Eh, no, your honour. They were for reading.

– So you read Kierkegaard. Tell us about him, Mr Renton, the patronising cunt sais.

– I’m interested in his concepts of subjectivity and truth, and particularly his ideas concerning choice; the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others. It could be argued, with some justification, that it’s primarily a bourgeois, existential philosophy and would therefore seek to undermine collective societal wisdom. However, it’s also a liberating philosophy, because when such societal wisdom is negated, the basis for social control over the individual becomes weakened and . . . but I’m rabbiting a bit here. Ah cut myself short. They hate a smart cunt.

Existentialism is essentially a denial of society, the belief that one is utterly alone in the universe. One is free from social control (in the form of advice, praise and condemnation, etc), for better or for worse. It seems to me a fundamentally adolescent state of mind – the disputation of the merit of one’s elders, as one strikes out in life. But as you get older you realise that you’re not unique and that many people have been through the same situations; also the inter-connectedness of society and the rhythms of the generations become more evident. (Or so it has been with me). Renton’s passage through Trainspotting thus exactly embodies his desire to escape the “collective societal wisdom” (such as it is) of his background, to abrogate the “social control over the individual”, liberating himself.

After overdosing, he says “Ah huv tae git oot ay Leith, oot ay Scotland. For good. Right away, no jist doon tae London fir six months. The limitations and ugliness ay this place hud been exposed tae us and ah could never see it in the same light again.” His subsequent time in London is a blackly hilarious demonstration of the temptations of the bigger city and the freedoms of a more atomised society. His return to Edinburgh shows the inevitable consequence of transgression, with his friends literally disintegrating: Johnny Swan has had a leg amputated, Tommy has HIV, and Matty died an appalling death. His final departure, having burned his bridges with his remaining friends, is a glorious hymn to freedom, and where plot and subtext finally meet:

He had done what he wanted to do. He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be. He’d stand or fall alone. This thought both terrified and excited him as he contemplated life in Amsterdam.

Clearly this is good stuff. The blistering talent demonstrated by Trainspotting was then consolidated by The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares. Collections of short stories tend to have a desk-clearing aspect to them and Acid House is no exception, with some stories which don’t come off at all (“The House of John Deaf”, “Wayne Foster”, “Vat ’96″). But in my experience there’s very few short story writers can sustain quality in diversity: not Chekov, not James Kelman, not Stephen King, not Katherine Mansfield. (Only  Dubliners is uniformly excellent, that I know of). Acid House does have moments of astounding inspiration: “The Two Philosophers” is probably the best shaggy-dog story I have ever heard, with an absolute killer punchline; “The Shooter” is Welsh at his most realistic, showing his incisive eye and skill at characterisation; “Eurotrash” is transgressive but humane and, at the end, deeply empathetic; “The Granton Star Cause” and “The Acid House” are both works of Rabelaisian imagination. The novella at the end, “A Smart Cunt”, I believe perhaps the finest thing Welsh has ever written. It is moderately similar to Trainspotting but is more tightly focused, following one character (in first-person only) through various scenes: alcohol/heroin/ecstasy, Edinburgh/London, gay/straight. In its more subtle way, it is as existential as Trainspotting: but rather than rejecting society, “A Smart Cunt” denies the essence of the self, showing the protagonist Euan becoming a different person as he adapts to the different scenes. The recurrent mise-en-scene opening to each chapter emphasises this, removing any transition and showing Euan knee-deep in whatever situation he is in.

Marabou Stork Nightmares, meanwhile, is similarly inventive. Using the multiple-narrative and [SPOILER ALERT] comatose protagonist structure of Iain Banks’ exceptional novel The Bridge (Banks’ personal favourite), Welsh examines the roots of violence and abuse through a realistic narrative and a Freudian/Boys Own Adventure/Jungian symbolic counterpoint. While the form of The Bridge and Marabou Stork might be similar, Welsh does something completely different with it, to his great credit. As with The Bridge, the narrative strands start to merge towards the end of the novel, making its symbolism apparent. (I’m afraid I don’t have a copy with me in China so you’ll just have to believe me). It is though a dense stew of sexual symbolism and working class demotic – see this essay for a more detailed (if sophomoric) analysis.

So: three fine books within three years (1993-1995). Welsh then followed them up with Ecstasy (1996), Filth (1998), Glue (2001) , Porno (2002) and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006) – after which I lost patience and hadn’t read anything else until Skagboys (2012).  (Welsh is a man for the one-word titles, huh? Just like Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle). While Ecstasy was a hurriedly tossed-off piece of crap, the others are broadly similar, utilising the “trajectory” narrative inspired by American Pyscho, where events are less important than the trajectory they demonstrate the protagonist(s) to be on – usually working towards some kind of breakdown. Glue is the exception, being I think mostly in third person; but all tend to downplay character at the expense of plotting. I use plotting in the loose sense, for Welsh is hardly a detective-writer style tight-plotter. Nonetheless, in all these later novels, Welsh moves from the seedy psychodrama of his initial work to uninspired melodrama. He continually uses inane plot devices to keep things moving along: the chance encounter, the near-miss, the ridiculous scene of unnecessary but grotesque sex or violence (the one in Porno involving Spud and Chizzie is unbelievably grim but essentially redundant; the one in Filth is so over-the-top as to be cartoonish), the rush towards the melodramatic conclusion, the fatuous symbolic realisation. This last is most egregiously seen in Porno and in Masters Chefs. Porno‘s Nikki Fuller-Smith somehow shoehorns her betrayal by Sickboy into a allegory for the lazy irony of post-2000s culture, while in Master Chefs, as the Guardian review has it, “an intermittent attempt to elevate Skinner’s abuse-by-proxy into a symbol for Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq – ‘they get other people to deal with the shit they make through their own twisted vanity’ – seems especially forced”. And the endings! My god, what a farrago of cheap melodrama, naff symbolic resolutions and lazy cliches. Porno is the worst of all – I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but it is a shockingly cheap way to handle the Begbie-Renton confrontation to which practically the entire fucking novel had been building up. It might be a naff joke for a book whose narrative engine is the production of a skin flick to have a terrible faked climax; but then, it might just be bad writing. My money is on the latter.

Throughout all of these later novels, there are to be sure good moments. Welsh’s eye never deserts him; his insights into Scottish/British politics and culture are often thought-provoking; and his handling of character is generally (though certainly not always) superb. But with his occasionally pretentious prose, weak plotting, use of shabby narrative devices and ham-fisted thematic MEANINGFUL SECTIONS, the decline has been all too apparent. Considering the magnificent achievement of Trainspotting, his career has been a visceral disappointment.

Skagboys however still held out some hope. (I didn’t even bother reading Crime or If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, such has been my exasperation with Welsh). His love for those original characters is patent; while Porno was weak in many ways, the voicing of Sick Boy, Renton, Spud, Begbie et al in their 40s was a consistent strength, even a delight. (Begbie’s first-person narratives in particular are frequently hilariously ironic, while Spud’s are grievously touching). The premise of Skagboys, in taking Renton and Sickboy from the punk scene into heroin addiction, also augured well. I will examine the novel in detail next week.

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3 thoughts on “The Decline of Irvine Welsh

    • I haven’t read Marabou Stork Nightmares and while I disagree with you about Welsh’s writing, I was wondering if you could tell me where Begbie shows up in the book. I’m on a kick.

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