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Book Review: "Porno", by Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting is a story which, on initial reading, did not seem to require any sort of follow-up. Sure, the ending left things rather open-ended — but, that struck me as a very deliberate choice. Mark Renton, the novel's flawed central protagonist, had set out determined to make a clean break both from his old life, and his long-time friends. He had reached a point where he felt ready to kick his drug habit for good, and start over far away from Scotland. It was a surprisingly uplifting ending for such a bleak story — and, I would have been perfectly satisfied if things had ended there.

This is true both for the original novel and the film adaptation — so, it is definitely interesting to note that both did eventually receive follow-ups, almost entirely independently of each other. Irvine Welsh's 2002 novel Porno, and the 2017 film sequel T2: Trainspotting, share some similarities, of course — but, they also diverge from each other in a number of ways.

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Porno is a novel that closely follows the structure of Trainspotting — with each of the core cast given ample opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings through often heavily accented first-person narrative. However, while Mark Renton was the central protagonist of the previous book, Sick Boy seems to hold a more prominent role, this time around.. In the years since the ill-fated drug deal, in which Renton made off with all of the money, Sick Boy has also attempted to start a new life. Leaving behind his old attitude of drug fuelled apathy behind, Sick Boy current dream is to reinvent himself as a successful business man. His latest venture, however, centres around the production of an amateur pornographic film. Renton, for his part, made good use of the money that he stole from his former friends — having spent the last few years living happily in Amsterdam, and running a successful night-club. Francis Begbie is still in prison — where his anger at Renton's betrayal has only grown stronger. Spud, meanwhile, seems to have become increasingly isolated from his former friends. His is still struggling to finally kick his own long-time drug habit — though, he has found some solace in his current plans to research, and write, a book about the history of Edinburgh. The central cast is rounded up by the new addition of Nikki Fuller-Smith — a young university student who finds herself drawn into the seedy world of amateur pornography when she agrees to perform in Sick Boy's film.

Finding himself drawn back to Scotland, a chance encounter leads to a reunion of sorts between Renton and Sick Boy. Despite his obvious reluctance to be drawn back into his old life, Renton's lingering sense of guilt compels him to agree to invest in Sick Boy's film. It's just unfortunate that Renton's return to Scotland happens to coincide with Begbie's release from prison.

Something that I should probably admit, upfront, is that I just didn't enjoy Porno as much as I did Trainspotting. Things do get off to a pretty good start, admittedly — and, for a while, it seems as though Porno will be able to maintain that same balance of bleakness and black humour that made Trainspotting so fascinating. But, it's not too long the balance starts to shift. The simple fact of the matters is that, while Trainspotting was often genuinely funny in spite of its bleak subject matter, Porno rarely is. Of course, it's entirely possible that this was a deliberate decision. Perhaps stripping away the humour was necessary, in order to let us see these characters as they really are. Or, maybe the events of the novel just did not allow for that same level of dark humour.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the end result is that, without some amount of humour to take the edge of, Porno essentially becomes a bleak and uncomfortable story of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. To an extent, these characters managed to come across as almost likeable in Trainspotting — but here, it seems as though their various characters flaws have only grown worse with time.

Despite all of this, though, Porno still manages to be oddly, and uncomfortably, fascinating. If you finished Trainspotting wanting to know more about these characters (and, really, you should read Trainspotting before you touch this one), then Porno will give you exactly what you want. Though, you should also prepare yourself — if you struggled with the subject matter, and some of the content, of Trainspotting, then you are not likely to have an easier time here.