Kicking, and Kicking Again
I’ve begun using Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1999, Vintage, ISBN:9780749336509) as a barometer of potential friendships. I have a friend who uses the series Black Books, which she loans to people she isn’t sure of to assess whether they’d be good friend material. That seems to work well for her, so I have decided to use Trainspotting. It might not be totally accurate, but like Sex Panther cologne, 60% of the time, it works 100% of the time. And if you haven’t seen the film Anchorman, you really should, even if only to get that reference. I’ve owned three copies of Trainspotting since I bought my first one when I was eighteen; not because I am such a fool as to go around flinging my money at publishers, but because I keep loaning it to people who leave it on buses.
Anyway, Trainspotting began life as a series of short stories in various publications. Of course, most people know it from the movie, but honestly the movie does no justice at all to the depth of storytelling and character development in the work itself. I guess the movie is pretty visceral in its way, but you’ve not experienced the amount of horror and humour which Welsh combines in the short stories. Plus, they’re all told with different perspectives, with literally different voices, which is pretty amazing. You can even hear in your minds’ ear the differences in accent between character, which proves to me that it’s not just a gimmick. For example, Diane in the storyThe First Shag in Ages says ‘not’ when she’s talking to her parents (as in “Mark’s not interested in that”, at the bottom of page 147). Other characters say ‘no’ and other variations as they see fit (it’s all the same word – to paraphrase Francis Begbie, can you not understand the Queens’ English?). It’s real subtle and cleverly done, often to indicate stress, education level, all sorts of stuff. My particular favourite example of this is when Renton is rabbiting on about Kirkegaard at the sentencing judge when he and Spud are being tried for stealing books – he goes all proper-sounding, and then flicks back to his usual ‘voice’ when they’re in the pub afterward. There’s even regional accent indications as well, with Mark Renton’s family from Glasgow written in their own vernacular to the main cast of Edinburghites. Edinburghians? Whatever, people from Edinburgh, already! Sheesh!
Some people think that the vernacular detracts from the story, which is a fair point. But when you think about the amount of skill, of sheer listening willpower which has gone into crafting that written dialect, it never fails to impress the shit out of me.
Like a lot of Welsh’s writing, there is a lot of under-surface stuff going on. Sex is never just sex as much as the characters might claim that it is – it’s a power-play or a cry for help or something else entirely. The relationships are all extremely complex – for instance, even though Sick Boy and Renton are best friends, they kind of hate each other too, and seem at times to be almost didactically opposed to each other. Rents and his parents, who begin with three sons and end with one; Alison and Sick Boy and their never-acknowledged arrangement. There are a lot of characters who frequent the loose circle of characters, but are completely opposed in temperament and thinking: Spud and Begbie, for instance… actually, Spud and a lot of people, now I think about it. You can get pretty depressed about the whole thing really, but it’s so well written that it’s really hard not to enjoy the ride. It’s not all depressing too – there is a lot of seriously comedic moments (albeit, mostly blackly comic, but I’m a fan of that kind of thing). My favourite is the squirrel incident in Strolling Through the Meadows.
Do I have a favourite story overall? It’s probably either Bang to Rites, or Scotland Takes Drugs in Psychic Defence. I love the grief masked as rage and sarcasm of Bang to Rites, it’s the most wrenching story to me of the whole book. And Scotland Takes Drugs in Psychic Defence has an amazing twist of mood right in the end, it starts off in one emotion and ends up in quite another. Some damn fine writing there.
This book has, like I mentioned earlier, been such a wierdly pivotal literary lifepoint for me. It’s certainly not for the faint-of-heart, but then again, it’s not what you’d expect as well. I mean, people who I thought would be kind of grossed out by the language and the graphic description have really liked it, so who am I to say? I know that I really like it, and it made me interested in the idea of using a single group of characters to tell a novels worth of story, each with their own voice and opinions and character. But if anyone tries to quote me that used-and-abused ‘Choose Life’ passage, I’ll swat you one.