p l o t t i n g a n d f a t a l i s m :
I can't say I was expecting an overtly mature work out of Irvine Welsh in this, his fourth novel. Welsh has grown more extreme, less restrained, in each of his subsequent efforts, and though I would find it difficult to imagine a more debaucherous novel than the one just prior, Filth, I had expected Glue to be, well, something less than what it now is.
Glue is the story of growing, aging, through a time of social reform and mass unemployment. It's a mostly first-person account from the perspectives of each of its four main characters—Terry Lawson, Billy Burrel, Andrew Galloway, and Carl Ewert—told over the period of three decades—1970 through 2000—and set almost exclusively in Welsh's native Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a story of friendship (hence the title), but should by no means be mistaken for a sappy coming-of-age jaunt.
Populated by ugly, vulgar, extremely human characters, the only true driving force in this novel is time. There's a certain uncommon fatalism to this novel, a cruel but honest device Welsh uses: in each section (except the last), each of the main characters is allowed only one chance to speak, one chapter, one monologue throughout which he is the narrator, and once all four have finished, the section ends and ten years pass in a single page-turn. People who appear salvageable, dreams that appear attainable, careers, addictions, relationships—all of these are resolved in one moment for you, the reader, the moment you reach that new section heading. Everything that you have been anticipating or fearing or trying to imagine a positive solution to is suddenly and finally resolved, and the way it's been resolved is fairly clear, because these are not plot-lines, they are lives.
t h e s t o r y :
As the story opens, our heroes are all roughly five years old. Andrew's father is "going away," Terry's is basically an absent playboy, but Carl and Billy are members of fairly happy working-class homes. Welsh does not intend to idealize these times, or the nuclear family, but makes it clear that a sense of self-respect pervades workers of this time, that they feel a certain responsibility toward their fellow workers and communities and a great deal of pride in caring for their families. This is epitomized in a set of ten rules (set out by Carl's Father, Duncan), a sort of working-class ten commandments:
- NEVER HIT A WOMAN
- ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR MATES
- NEVER SCAB
- NEVER CROSS A PICKET LINE
- NEVER GRASS FRIEND NOR FOE
- TELL THEM NOWT (THEM BEING POLIS, DOLE, SOCIAL, JOURNALISTS, COUNCIL, CENSUS, ETC.)
- NEVER LET A WEEK GO BY WITHOUT INVESTING IN NEW VINYL
- GIVE WHEN YOU CAN, TAKE ONLY WHEN YOU HAVE TO
- IF YOU FEEL HIGH OR LOW, MIND THAT NOTHING GOOD OR BAD LASTS FOR EVER AND TODAY'S THE START OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
- GIVE LOVE FREELY, BUT BE TIGHTER WITH TRUST
At fifteen these four boys find Mr. Ewart's rules mostly irrelevant as they do their best to find girls and soccer brawls and parties and so on. Terry has dropped out of school (as Welsh did) and now sells juice off the back of lorries (pickup trucks). He's known as "Juice" Terry. The others still attend school. Their main obsession is sex, which only Terry seems to be capable of finding. When Andrew is arrested for a crime he didn't commit (but was not altogether innocent of), the "never grass" rule gains immediate importance (though Andrew's situation appears almost secondary to the pressing concern of sex in the minds of his friends).
Then, suddenly, ten years have passed. Our heroes are now twenty-five, with new anxieties and new problems, new lives. There is no work in Edinburgh any longer (or no factory work at least). Billy is now "Business" Burrell, a boxer who has (so far) done well for himself; Carl is a DJ (called N-SIGN); Terry is unemployed; Andrew is a junkie. Their parents are unemployed (in the main) and
such rules as "never scab," etc. are beginning to appear particularly outdated. The lack of work has cut the self-respect out of one generation and destroyed any simple expectations the next might have had. Billy's and Carl's success are, in context, clearly the exception. When it becomes clear what Terry really does for a living, we are not surprised.
And again a decade passes, and we cringe because we know some of the particular things that will have happened over that decade, things that we fear. There is a sense of finality as the fourth section of the novel opens (at "Approximately 2000"): Now those things we feared have happened. There is violence in this novel—not a great deal of it, not to the level of some of Welsh's other work—but it is this passage of time, this decade, that is the most violently jarring moment in this book.
f a l s e d r e a m s :
It is appropriate, I think, that Welsh's most famous characters, Mark Renton and his fellow conspirators from Trainspotting, make cameo appearences in this novel—Glue is, after all, a sort of counterpart to that earlier novel. Trainspotting is about escape, about the personal growth that's only possible once one has left all of the dragging, lazy, comfortable influences behind. Glue is about the realization that escape is impossible, that there's nowhere to go that isn't eventually going to be the same. Escape is a false dream, learning to live with your past is paramount, and transcending your community is ultimately at odds with caring for those within it.
This is not to say that Welsh has lost his brash, rude tone or his anarchistic leanings. He still moves in the same circles and he still aims his camera dead center on the filth and ugliness just as comfortably as the beauty and the friendship. He just, now, has a better understanding of what he sees.
Glue is an excellent novel, as good as anything Welsh has yet written.
by Irvine Welsh
467 pages, Copyright
© 2001 by Irvine Welsh
W. W. Norton & Company
: 0-393-32215-7 (Paperback)
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