- t h e m a r a b o u s t o r k -
The beast's throat patch was reddish; it had scabs of warty dried blood on the base of its large, conical bill; its legs were stained white with dried excrement. It was the large, bulky scavenger-predator known as the Marabou Stork.
There is some irony, I think, in the title of Irvine Welsh's second novel. Marabou Stork Nightmares is certainly a nightmarish story, a sometimes bitter and cruel dark fantasy which can indeed be a very bad place for its protagonist (an angry young Scot named Roy Strang): The nightmare for Roy, however, is his waking life; his dreams spent hunting the ungainly Marabou Stork are a comparatively benign escape.
Roy is a sharp character: tough, intelligent, brutal, and tragically lucid—and all of this from a hospital bed. Plugged-in and vegetative, he's witty despite both his stunted alpha waves and the James Bond theme songs his parents insist on playing in his presence ("Mind they sais ah could . . . . The doaktirs said. Ken, wi the music hittin a different part ay the brain").
Comas have never been so exciting.
Roy's gay brother ("poof" in Welsh's dialect) recites bad poetry to him in an angry gay lisp; his sister whines predictably, repeatedly, about the short-lived men in her life and the second illegitimate child that she suspects is coming, crying ("greetin") on his lifeless form; his parents fling insults and attacks and ugliness so loosely as to suggest the word "dysfunctional" has now become as qauint and ineffectual as a figure-head monarch. It is no great shock, then, that he spends as much time as possible on an imaginary safari with his walking-archetype of a companion, footballer-turned-hunter Sandy Jamieson—hunting the detestable Marabou Stork, a creature Roy had once seen savage a group of flamingos, a disembodied flamingo head hanging loosely from its giant beak.
But the real world keeps cutting in on the fantasy.
- l a y e r s a n d l i t 1 0 1 -
I probably remember more than I should of the heavy-hitter literature discussions I've been party to in my life. I'm not talking about the ones that involved phrases like "New Criticism" and "deconstruction" and "postmodern" and so on (those were unintelligible even during the discussions, at least two steps removed from any actual texts), I mean at least partially real and useful readings—and in those, the discussions seem to have always turned, at one point or another, to either patterns or layers, two ways of approaching the same idea: that depth in a text exists in a fairly consistent and discernible way. That the understanding of a text evolves much in the same way an onion is peeled. Reading Stork my thoughts kept returning to those discussions, those classes—Welsh has written this novel on three levels, and he makes a point of, well, making it a point every four pages (or so) throughout the text. I couldn't help thinking there was a little thumbing of the nose involved.
As an example, I'll use the first page of the novel:
1 Another Lost
On this journey, this crazy high-speed journey through this strange
land in this strange vehicle.
Just me and Sandy Jamieson.
But they were trying to disturb me, trying to wake me; the way they
always did. They willnae let this sleeping dog lie. They always
interfere. When the cunts start this shite it makes things get aw
distorted and I have to try to get deeper.
DEEPER. Things get dis
up - - - - - We're just
coming going to take your temp-
start erature, Roy. Have you
I got the bedpan, Nurse Norton?
I lose control when they interfere - - - and Number Twos now Roy, time for
- Yes, he's looking brighter this morning, isn't he, Nurse Devine? You're brighter this
morning, Roy lovey.
Aye right ye are, take your fuckin hand oot ma fuckin erse.
DEEPER- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - Sandy Jamieson is my best friend down here. A
Readers familiar with Welsh will be comfortable with a few conventions that he has used consistently throughout his work: the phonetically-spelled Scottish dialect, the use of dashes to denote the beginning of spoken passages, the fairly liberal use of unorthodox punctuation and words in all caps for effect. In this novel, Welsh also uses such techniques as a smaller font size to denote conversation that the narrator hears while comatose, and shifts in consciousness represented by rising and lowering text.
Roy Strang exists in three layers (or levels) of consciousness: the highest is his comatose state, where he is able only to hear the world around him, followed next by a state of reminiscence, in which he describes his life and the events leading up to his current state, and finally by the Stork-hunting fantasy, which Roy spends the duration of the novel trying to maintain. The fantasy is very often interrupted by (1) his conscience, forcing him to remember certain events and (2) his parents, siblings, and nurse talking to him. Shifts upward in conscience are represented by text is to be read upward on the page ("and I start coming up" in the above example), while shifts downward, well, shift downward.
- t h e r e a l w o r l d -
The real world for Roy is an Edinburgh housing project (or "scheme"), a pair of dull, angry, parents and two disturbed siblings, a gang of soccer hooligans with whom he associates, and a heavy dose of hard memories—like a mauling at the hands of Winston Two (the family dog) at eight and repeated sexual abuse by an uncle a few years later, during the short period of time that the family spent in apartheid-era South Africa. Roy hates his job (programming computers, "like yir Ma sais, the thing ay the future," his father says many times) his co-workers, women, gays, his family, the family dog, his hooligan friends, and, of course, the Marabou Stork.
This is no Catcher in the Rye (and, to be honest, I always thought Holden Caulfield was a pansy: if you want to push the angst, hate, social rebellion, and the possibility of redemption, I don't see why you should stop half-way)—when Roy Strang hates, he hates with everything he has: as he insults and beats gays, as he intimidates and even abuses women, as he avenges childhood injuries, this book depicts some of the vilest scenes of violence that I've read. Why he hates—the fear of his own homosexual impulses, the self-consciousness over his perceived ugliness, the apparent necessity to appear strong and therefore avenge all slights, however small—these come through in his thoughts, and these are very true motivations. It is the resonance between the two, the thoughts and the actions, (or, more accurately, between the reader's perception of Roy as vulnerable and the other characters' perception of him as cruel) that is the real strength of this work. It is a real-world example, and one I think many of us recognize, of one of Kurt Vonnegut's better theses: "Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be."
The Marabou Stork preys on the weak and picks flesh off the dead; and the mythical hunt for the stork serves, in this novel, much as Florida does in Midnight Cowboy, or "the fat of the land" in Of Mice and Men—as that thing that can (and will, in the mind of the character) solve all of that character's unsolvable problems. Once he and Sandy discover the nest of the stork, and kill it, he will be able to rejoin society. Cleansed of the hate, the anger, and probably most of all the guilt over his past, he will come fully to the surface and open his eyes. He will no longer be a separate person externally from the one he is internally: What he is, what his old life was, is all represented in that ugly beast.
I could have gone on about the spirit of the hunt. I could have produced a welter of damning evidence of the carnage that these despicable beasts can perpetuate on other wildlife and game . . . . The problem is it wouldn't have been true . . . . I just know that I've met that Stork before, in a previous life perhaps, and I know that it's evil. I know that it's important for me to destroy it.
- s y n o p s i s -
Irvine Welsh is at his best while presenting characters with deep scars who spend most of their time ignoring them. His work is weaker when he concentrates on why's and how's, painting his characters with the "introspective" brush. He is, to put it another way, much more intelligent when he's being less cerebral. There are sections of this novel that feel a bit forced, once or twice, but to a great extent the characters are honest and real. There is not one idealized character in this entire novel.
Welsh is a lyrical writer, a man who molds his sounds and rhythms even more tightly than his characters. I can not think of a living writer who's words are more percussive, more musical. It is this language that is a sort of barrier-to-entry into his works: only after chapter or two does one grow used to the eccentricities, and after a book or two, one grows to truly appreciate the language, to understand just how much depth his language adds and to realize just how talented this writer really is.
A number of critics have suggested that this is Welsh's best novel; I'm not certain. His earlier novel, Trainspotting seems to me more uneven than Stork, and not as well written, yet still more profound and more important. This book is, in any case, the work of a better and more mature writer, and it is one of the few necessary reads in contemporary literature.
Marabou Stork Nightmares
by Irvine Welsh
264 pages, Copyright © 1995 by Irvine Welsh
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0-393-31563-0 (Paperback)