My book of the 90s: Trainspotting

Irvine_Welsh_by_Kubik (2)

Irvine Welsh by Mariusz Kubik

Forget Trainspotting the movie, with its silly surreal scenes of deep diving into a filthy toilet and a baby’s head rotating through 360 degrees.

Trainspotting (1993) the novel was a darker, more disturbing story altogether, a tale told by multiple narrators that plumbed incredible lows, delivered at exhilarating pace in challenging phonetic dialect.

And reading it blew the lid off my understanding of how novels could be narrated.

I first read it in 1993 shortly after it was published, and found it simultaneously horrific and hilarious. The main narrator is Mark Renton, a heroin addict, and the book tells of him and his friends and associates in Edinburgh, including Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, each of which have addictions of their own.

Trainspotting cover

It takes several pages for the language to become second nature to the reader – try reading it out loud at first, or at least sound the words out in your head. It begins to sound Scottish – trust me. Also you’re left to figure out what many of the words mean, such as ‘radge’ and ‘gash’.

What’s quickly apparent is that the book started out as short stories, character sketches and set pieces, all loosely knitted together.

And it has a nastier edge than the movie: for example, when in the movie Sick Boy shoots a pitbull with an air rifle, and watches it turn on his skinhead owner, it’s humorous. In the novel, he follows up by killing the pitbull. The movie turns the characters from the book into cartoonish caricatures.

Similarly, the movie shied away from Renton leaving the funeral of his brother Billy, a soldier who died on duty in Northern Ireland, to have sex with his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend in a toilet. One character tells another on his deathbed that he raped and murdered the dying man’s six year old son. A waitress gets revenge on rude customers by dunking a tampon in their soup.

The book is also much, much funnier, and illuminating on extremes of behaviour.

I read all of Welsh’s 90s output, and while it captured the ecstasy and Britpop mania I wasn’t bowled over by the rest of it: even Filth, which had its moments, was just too nasty and too flat in too many places.

And then he struck gold again with Glue (2001), a fantastic multi-decade tale of four childhood friends, also set in Edinburgh. It treads similar ground to Trainspotting – football, drugs, rave culture, violence, sex – and even a spot of dog cruelty again. But it steers clear of the more gruesome caricatures of his other, less impressive 90s work. It’s the work of a calmer, more mature novelist at the height of his powers.

And he followed it the next year with Porno (2002), a sequel to Trainspotting, with cameo roles for characters from Glue too. This time, they’ve turned their energies from shooting up to focusing on making and starring in homemade pornography, and it’s all done with a lighter touch than Trainspotting.

And next on my list to read is Skagboys (2012), a prequel to Trainspotting. It’s another doorstep-sized novel, and if it’s in the same league as Trainspotting, Glue or Porno, it’ll be a mense belter.

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