f i l t h
Filth I've never been partial to. Not just the job they do, but as people, like. It was always the sneaky, cowardly little kids you used to give a good slapping to at school what went on to be filth. Like they was trying to put on a uniform and get their own back against the world.
This observation by Irvine Welsh in his novella Fortune's Always Hiding says, in less than a paragraph, nearly everything he later, in Filth, requires nearly four hundred pages to describe. Filth, Welsh's third novel, is the story of a dirty cop, figuratively and literally, which makes the title doubly apt, as "filth" is slang for "police" in the UK. In fact, the one thing that everyone--critics, readers, Welsh himself--appear to agree on is that "Filth" is the perfect title for this book. Of course, Welsh's intention in titling this novel probably has something to do, as well, with a reaction to criticism of his course language and his often disturbing, disgusting, and deviant subject matter. This is Welsh saying "and you thought I was publishing filth before..."
This is the story of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh detective who spends his time scheming, ranting, harassing the weak and every woman who comes within arms' reach, consuming the drugs he lifts off suspects, and generally doing all the sort of dirty cop things that dirty cops do, plus planning a trip to Amsterdam for some quality time with prostitutes--all while purportedly investigating the racially-motivated killing of a black man. Robertson's wife having recently left him, his hygiene is not what it once was--living in a mess of dirty clothing and assorted filth, he begins to develop a flaking eczema on his "baws" and soon realizes he also has a tapeworm.
The tapeworm, oddly enough, becomes a central character in this novel. Much like he does in Marabou Stork Nightmares and elsewhere, Welsh uses unorthodox layout tricks liberally in this novel. Robertson's tapeworm makes sporadic appearances on top of the text of the narrative, inserting its own commentary. To choose an example at random:
A load of ) 000000000eat000000eat0000000 (a state of fear
and that always( 000eat000000 this consumption, )nly too well. So
after all the dr) all this chomping and chewing, it (hree sheets and
Bladsey's off, ( provides me with more evidence of )the heads of the
hydra. Jake Bu) my existence than thought does. (tube of KY jelly
as his exposed( This is the only real way I can )ing to struggle.
I disliked this device from the start: I was unsure of whether or not I should to try to decipher the text obscured by the worm's commentary, and the weak, naive voice of the worm, and it's attempts at psychology and philosophy, never once struck me as anything more sincere than clumsy machinations on the part of Welsh. Later in the novel, as Robertson and this worm begin to share a certain symbiosis, as the worm becomes in some ways Robertson's conscience and then recounts his memories, I found myself setting the novel aside for an hour or two at a time because I couldn't bear the awkward and forced nature of this narrator.
c a t h a r s i s
This is what you might call provocation. On the cover of the novel is a rosy-cheeked pig wearing a police cap; when Welsh's publishers rolled out posters featuring a similar likeness, Scottish police began tearing them off walls and raiding bookstores that kept them. I'm certain Welsh was ecstatic: this is a novel intended to piss you off, to make you laugh (and it is very funny) at scenes you will feel uncomfortable laughing at, to make you feel a certain empathy for characters whom you feel uncomfortable going anywhere near. This is what we'd call "edgy" if it were a decade ago and the word still had some meaning, this is what we'd call one-upsmanship or (cringe) "pushing the envelope," making it a point to go further than one has gone before.
What this means, in the worst case, is simple, heavy-handed manipulation of the reader. In the best case, we talk about it in terms of catharsis--that emotional breaking-point that justifies all the pain (or, possibly, tittilation) that has lead up to it. There's a certain movement in literature--and it is by no means new--that attempts to ride the line between these two, that supports the use of the most extreme cases of cruelty, debauchery, emotional torment (or the opposite, extreme detachment) instead of the mundane pressures and honest trials of life as a means to this catharsis. Most of it fails.
Welsh lives on this line, and right now he's basically the head of this movement. In Marabou Stork Nightmares, in many ways a similar novel, he plays this line well. His protagonist does horrible things--but there is a certain sympathy Welsh shows for him that seems honest. Welsh, in my reading, despises Bruce Robertson. This novel was written as a reaction to police hypocricy, as an angry rant, and it shows. The attempts at justification or explanation or even simple human understanding toward Robertson seem synthetic. There is a point in this novel that should be profound, that is required to be profound for the novel, as a whole, to work: Robertson realizes his own lack of power and control in a moment of altruism. He becomes somehow human--and this should carry through to the novel's conclusion. It fails. The novel's backstory fails. The justifications are weak, and the worm narrator is unbearable. The conclusion to this novel does carry with it some emotional weight, but that weight fades quickly, leaving in the mind mainly scenes of pettiness and cruelty. This novel does not have the resonance of Welsh's earlier works.
s y n o p s i s
The real failing of this novel is that Welsh lacks the gall to avoid justifying this character. I could find more significance in the way Robertson breaks if I believed the character. This novel could sustain twice the filth and ugliness it now contains, but just a few pages of limp-wristed New Age "sharing" is more than enough to undercut the rest of the work. In his most extravagantly detestable novel, my only real complaint is that Welsh does not go far enough.
by Irvine Welsh
393 pages, Copyright © 1998 by Irvine welsh
W. W. Norton & Company
: 0-393-31868-0 (Paperback)