t h e t i m e a n d t h e a n t h e m :
Maybe you don't have to be rude to be honest; maybe you don't have to be blunt to be direct; maybe you don't have to be extreme, sensational, angry, crude, weary, percussive, innovative, steeped in dialect, counter-cultural, vulgar, and poetic to be effective. Maybe—but it helps. Irvine Welsh is what you might call a polarizing force in contemporary literature (that's if you're comfortable using his name in the same sentence as the "L"-word in the first place). He's another on the bandwagon of pop culture,
drugs, violence, the pack-enough-ugliness-into-it-and-anything-will-sell school of trash fiction—this is what one side will tell you. The other side, they'll say Welsh is on the short list of Writers to Watch. They'll say that he's establishing a new audience, new readers, and that he's influencing a generation of writers. Me, I think he's significant and I think he's relevant. And I believe there's more music in his words than any other living novelist whom I've read.
"Choose Life," he says through his narrator in Trainspotting:
Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fucking embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life.
Well, I choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it's thair fuckin problem.
This statement, barely more than a paragraph, is probably the most widely quoted section of any novel in recent memory (due to the popularity of the Danny Boyle film)—see Nodespotting, Adminspotting, linkspotting, Everything is funnier in Scottish, mulespotting, and (groan) lovenoding for direct, "replace a word here and there" parodies (see also Wondering who the fuck you are on a sunday morning and Francis Begbie for Trainspotting-related quotations). What I'm trying to make clear here as that this sentiment hit the collective nerve of this generation—maybe the core generation of this community, the one that Douglas Coupland begrudgingly christened "Generation X" in his novel of the same name—like a fifteen-pound hammer to the solar plexus. Coupland gave this group a name and did his best to describe them. Welsh, on the other hand, gave them an anthem.
a b i o g r a p h i c a l n o t e :
Welsh was born in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland in 1958 to Jean and Pete Welsh. He spent most of his childhood in housing projects in Muirhouse, which are depicted in much of his fiction. He dropped out of school at 16 and began to repair televisions for a living, and soon quit. At twenty, Welsh moved to London and became involved in the punk scene (trying to be a guitarist and singer) and, to an extent that is not clear, the heroin scene. Following numerous petty arrests fueled by alcohol and drugs (vandalism, etc.), Welsh withdrew from the punks. He began doing clerical work and taking computer-related classes. He married. He became involved in real estate. He'd moved from, as he put it, "My Drug Hell" to "My Suburban Hell." He returned to Scotland to work in the Edinburgh District Council, working in information technology, and began to work on his Master's in Business Administration at Heriot-Watt University. It was at this point, at thirty years of age, that Welsh began to write stories.
Written as a series of short stories revolving roughly around a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, published initially in these pieces in small literary magazines, Welsh's first novel, Trainspotting, was accepted by the first publisher to whom it was submitted. By the time it was published in late 1993, the book was receiving praise from the UK literary press and was considered a possible Booker Prize contender (it was, however, not even shortlisted). Trainspotting was inspired in many ways by punk music (Iggy Pop in particular), and its reception reflected this unique, counter-cultural beat, this truly new voice in literature. The novel was criticized by some for being uneven, over-long, poorly-paced, and so on, but its wit and its imagery were undeniable.
Welsh published The Acid House the following year. A novella and a collection of short stories, it was well received by critics. Then, in 1995, Welsh's second novel was published. Marabou Stork Nightmares was the story of a comatose soccer-hooligan who drifts in and out of his own fantasy world. It was darker and more experimental than Welsh's earlier efforts, and a very good book. Trainspotting, however, was the novel that became Welsh's signature effort, spawning a play in '95 and then a 1996 film. The film, written by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle (and in which Welsh played a small cameo), was enormously successful in both the UK and the US, winning Welsh a vast new audience and vaulting the sales of his three published books (as well as those of Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance, his new collection of three novellas, which was published later that year).
It was with Ecstasy that a certain backlash began toward Welsh on the part of critics. His instantaneous acceptance into the literary ranks after publishing Trainspotting, the notoriety he gained due to the film, and the sub-par effort that was Ecstasy combined to provoke a certain critical shark-feed that I'm certain any artist who's early work overshadows his more recent output would find very familiar. Welsh's first full play (he'd been involved in an earlier play called Headstate), You'll Have Had Your Hole, enjoyed a short run in 1998. The reviews were venomous, bad enough that they probably helped the play find an audience. Filth, Welsh's next novel, the story of a corrupt and unstable police officer, was published in 1999 to fairly polarized reviews. It was seen as either proof that Welsh had nothing more to say or as a sharp piece of satire that was both effective and uncomfortably "filthy." The negative reviews were not entirely unwarranted—the novel is clumsier and more tedious than it needs to be—but I would suggest that they were a bit obtuse.
Glue, the story of four boys growing up in the Edinburgh housing projects, told at ten-year increments from the ages of five to thirty-five, was published in 2001. It is, my opinion, as good as anything Welsh has written so far. I can't comment on its critical reception as I'm in the process of writing a review of this novel and will not read any criticism of it before completing it.
Porno, Welsh's most recent novel, the sequel to
Trainspotting, has also been published recently.
Throught the past decade, Welsh has lived in Edinburgh, London, and Amsterdam (all three are highly visible in his fiction). He spent the spring and summer of 2003 in Chicago, writing a column for London's Daily Telegraph¹. He is currently living in San Francisco and writing a new novel.
o n s t y l e a n d t y p e f a c e :
You'll become familiar with most of Welsh's conventions not long after opening any of his books: He rejects the quotation mark as punctuation for spoken passages, instead using a dash to denote the shift from narrative to speech (readers of James Joyce will recognize this style, though Welsh uses them after speech tags as well as at the beginning of spoken lines), he writes phonetically ("I" becomes "Ah," "do not" becomes "dinnae"), his language is coarse and much of his dialect and slang may be unfamiliar to those of us not Scottish or at least British (especially the rhyming slang). Welsh also uses different typefaces and font sizes when those particular effects suit him (see my writeups under Filth and Marabou Stork Nightmares for examples of this).
Welsh tends to use very similar scenery throughout his works. You'll find, again and again, the scheme—the housing project in which he was raised—with its sad, aging homes and its scampering and troublesome children. You will find angry Scottish youths looking for brawls at soccer games and outside bars. In the bars themselves, you'll find a generational chasm reflecting the shift away from industry in Scotland: the old men, mostly out-of-work, resigned, drunk, tired, and the young men who are always preparing for one fight or another. You'll see the Acid House, the ecstasy and the DJs and the techno, the near-orgy of chemical-assisted pleasure and for-the-night companionship. Welsh creates within this world, this limited world, many vivid characters (Francis Begbie comes to mind), some who can't help but recur in his later works. From all the perspectives Welsh has found, all the characters, he's mapping out this one culture, this time and this place. This is where he is comfortable.
Welsh is a musician, a DJ, and he has said in the past that it is music more than writing that most reflects who he is. He considers himself, then, more a failed musician than a successful writer. His influences, though he does list certain literary figures, tend to be musicians. His writing is perhaps best described as "punk literature": it's enraged and frustrated and set in a time when the parts of the world that once made sense, the jobs and self-respect and social order, are all changing, crumbling, and the results of those changes are not at all clear. It's these gut emotions that drive his prose—anxiety, fear, frustration, hate, elation, and lust—the same fuel that drives the people of the generation on which his characters are based. This is his talent, this is his place, and if there is a writer who better represents this particular movement, I've not read him.
b i b l i o g r a p h y :
These columns are currently available at the Daily Telegraph website, the first column at the following URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/global/main.jhtml?xml=%2Fglobal%2F2003%2F03%2F03%2Felchi03.xml