Scottish novelist, Irvine Welsh, seems to have built much of his career on taking some rather bleak subject matter and treating it with a fascinating combination of blunt honesty, moments of genuine heart, and an entertaining streak of black comedy. This is a combination that is very much evident in his first novel — Trainspotting, originally published in 1993. Even if you've never encountered the book before, you may have come across the 1996 film adaptation, which went on to become wildly successful in its own right.
The act of actually reading Trainspotting can make for a potentially intimidating experience for anyone outside of its native Scotland, though. Rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative, the bulk of the novel is made up of a series of somewhat disjointed episodes from the lives of its core cast, and the people around them — each written in a first-person style that mimics the dialect and thick accents of each character. It was something that I certainly struggled with, initially — though, it does do a very impressive job of giving each character their own unique voice.
Of the four characters who make up the novel's core cast, Mark Renton is the one clearly intended to fill the role of central protagonist. Much of the novel is devoted to his various attempts to kick his long-term heroin addiction, and move on with his life — and, the novel does an impressive job of showing his gradual development. His circle of friends may not receive quite as much attention, but they are each also well-developed and well-rounded characters, in their own way. Sick Boy comes across as almost completely amoral, and perfectly willing to use others when when it suits him — and, his portions of the novel give the uncomfortable sense that his drug use, and his own apathy, actually prevent him from causing more harm to the people around him. Spud, by contrast, is easily the most sympathetic character in the story — but, he is also clearly the weakest. Spud's drug-use seems to be motivated by a firm belief that he is destined to fail, so he may as well not try. Worst of all, though, is Francis Begbie — a man who seems to treat violence as his own personal drug of choice. If Renton is the novel's primary protagonist, then Begbie quickly settles into the role of main antagonist. His violent nature, and volatile temper, are a constant threat that looms over his supposed friends. This is something that becomes more pronounced as the novel reaches its conclusion.
There are other stories, and other characters, of course. But, in the end, we are always brought back to these four.
As you can probably guess, Trainspotting can make for depressing reading. However, throughout the course of the novel, there is also a running streak of crude and vulgar black comedy to take the edge off. The various ways that these characters interact with each other, and the way that they react to the bizarre situations that they find themselves in, make for some genuinely hilarious moments. These moments also serve as a good counterbalance to the novel's more serious and dramatic moments.
I think that one of the main reasons why Trainspotting was initially so well-received, and why it remains so effective today, is that it never felt any particular need to be overly preachy about its subject matter. Instead of seeming to pass judgement on his own characters. Throughout the novel, each of the four core characters, along with some others, will take on the role of narrator — and, each will have free rein to tell their story, and share their experiences. That's not the say that you're expected to admire, or even necessarily like, any of these characters, of course — even at their best, they are still drug-addicted criminals. But, Irvine Welsh was clearly intent on providing us with ample opportunity to understand them.
As you can probably guess, Trainspotting really isn't the sort of book you should pick up, if you're looking for a casual read. The blunt honesty with each Irvine Welsh approaches its subject matter results in a book which can, on occasion, make for genuinely uncomfortable reading. Despite that, though, Trainspotting still manages to be a fascinating, if confronting, look at a lifestyle that most of us will hopefully never have to experience for ourselves.
Nicholas W King on October 11, 2020:
I enjoyed reading your review. Welsh is a difficult author to get through (much like Chuck Palahniuk).