Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Book Review - 'Trainspotting', by Irvine Welsh

Scottish novelist, Irvine Welsh, seems to have based most of his career on a combination of black comedy and bleak pessimism, and there is not likely to be a better example of that than you can find in the book that made him famous - Trainspotting. If you have never read the book, then you may still remember the film based on it. The film was arguably even more successful than the book, to the extent that it may have become one of those odd cases where many in the audience didn't even realise that it was based on a novel. It also didn't hurt that Trainspotting made for a damn good film. Though, since I don't really intend to get into any sort of 'film' versus 'book' debate, here, this will be the last mention I make of the film adaptation in this review (I'm also not going to make any mention of which I happen to prefer, here).

Reading Trainspotting can make for a confusing experience. Rather than telling a straightforward story, the bulk of the novel is really a series of disjointed episodes from the lives of the core cast, and the people around them. Much of it is also (famously, or infamously, depending on your preference) writing in a style that mimics the thick Scottish accents of its cast - so, you can expect to spend a fair bit of time struggling with the use of language to start with. It's manageable, though - and, if you get into the habit of imagining it being read in the same sort of thick accents, then you will start to pick things up fairly quickly.

Of the four who make up the core cast, Mark Renton is the closest we are given to a 'hero' - much of the novel is devoted to his various attempts to kick his heroin addiction, and move on with his life. He seems to be motivated by a genuine desire to do better - even if his efforts often seem to come up short.

Sick Boy is amoral, and willing to use people when it suits him. In Sick Boy's case, there is an odd, and vaguely uncomfortable, sense that his drug use, and his own general apathy, actually keep him from causing more harm to the people around him.

Spud would easily be the most sympathetic - he is the most compassionate of the four (despite being just as willing to steal to support his habit as any of them), but is also the weakest. Spud's own drug use seems motivated by a firm belief that he is destined to fail at anything he may try to achieve.

Francis Begbie is probably close to the 'villain' of the novel, if you could apply a traditional villain role to a book like this. He is violent, he displays sociopathic tendencies, and his 'friends' put up with him simply because they are scared of him. Yet, at the same time, he often attempts to claim some sort of 'moral high-ground' over the others due to the fact that he isn't a drug addict (his own vices being alcohol and violence).

There are other stories, and other characters, that crop up throughout. But, in the end, we are always brought back to these four.

Trainspotting, as you can probably guess, is a depressing book - it's also incredibly crude, and occasionally outright vulgar. But, it is able to balance all of this with a fair amount of humour - though, admittedly, of a very dark kind. This humour is important, though. Without it, the experience of reading Trainspotting would probably have been downright unpleasant.

One of the main reasons that that Trainspotting was so well received when it was first published was that it didn't feel any particular need to be overly preachy. You don't need anyone to tell you that drugs are bad, after all - even those most immersed in drug use, and the odd sort of culture that can build up around it, would have to know that it really isn't doing them any good. So, instead of judging these people, we are given the opportunity to try to understand them. Throughout the course of the novel, many characters will take on the role of narrator - and, each will tell their story and share their experiences. That's not to say that we are expected to actually admire these characters in any way. Even the most likable of the cast is still a drug addict and a petty criminal - and, the worst of the bunch are outright abhorrent.

Begbie, for example, is a vile human being no matter what perspective you take on him. Even the insights into his character given by his own first-person narration, and the thoughts of those who know him best, wont make him any more likable. He's not the sort of person you would ever want to meet in real life (though, to be fair, none of them are) - but, as a fictional character, he is still oddly fascination. He may refuse to use drugs but, as others said about him throughout the book, his own personal drug is violence. While the rest of the core cast seem uniquely devoted to slowly destroying themselves, Begbie goes out of his way to find excused to harm other people - so, in the end, you are left with the odd contrast that, as bad as Renton, Sick Boy and Spud may be, each of them can still claim the moral high-ground over Begbie. Also, Renton's reluctant admission of the part they had all played in building up the mythology of 'Francis Begbie' (building up his reputation as the hardest bastard in Edinburgh), and Begbie's need to start living up to it once others started trying to test him, goes some way toward humanising him. It doesn't make him any more sympathetic, though.

Trainspotting isn't the sort of book you go to if you're looking for a casual read. It makes for challenging and occasionally uncomfortable reading - it's most definitely not a book for everyone. But, for those willing to take it on, Trainspotting is a fascinating, if bleak, look at a lifestyle that most will hopefully never have to experience for themselves.

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