There are some artistic endeavours that take their sweet time filtering into public consciousness. Others announce themselves with a bang and have an immediate impact on the prevailing culture. Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ falls firmly into the latter camp. At the time of its publication, the novel earned the debut author a place on the prestigious Booker awards long list. A film adaptation within a couple of years ensured that characters such as Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy reached a much wider audience.
The question is why Welsh’s characters resonated so strongly with the public in the mid 1990s, and why the day-to-day experiences of a group of low-life junkies in Leith, Edinburgh continue to find new generations to speak to. Part of the answer is that Welsh wrote sections of the book in Scottish dialect, lending the characters’ voices authenticity. This is an original stylistic choice, but more importantly, the author’s pursuit of authenticity creates a vivid experience for his readers. It really is possible to picture and hear the characters, see their surroundings and at times even smell the destitution around them. If you want a book that creates a world you can thoroughly immerse yourself in, ‘Trainspotting’ is a fantastic option.
Although published in 1993, the events of ‘Trainspotting’ take place half a decade earlier in the late 1980s. This difference is important, because it captures the height of the AIDS epidemic. Owing to heroin addicts sharing needles and passing blood between one another, Edinburgh became a world centre both of drug-addiction and HIV infections. This roots ‘Trainspotting’ firmly in the era of its origins, when the time-lag from HIV infection to death from AIDS was certainly under a decade, and in many instances where carriers lived in deprivation, just a few years. What ‘Trainspotting’ captures so vividly is the cheapness of life and an indifference to death when all of human activity centres around sating an addiction.
In depicting the desperation of Edinburgh’s low-life, Welsh creates memorable characters, many of whom are amoral or even immoral, but who nevertheless interest and enthral the reader. Not all of them are junkies. Begbie, for example, may be psychotic, but he doesn’t use. He gets his kicks from violence instead, much of it unprovoked as far as his victims are concerned. The book is narrated from multiple points of view, but Renton emerges as the protagonist. This serves the reader well because, unlike some of the characters within his orbit, Renton isn’t yet devoid of hope, nor is he beyond redemption.
Humour is a hook that keeps the reader engaged and entertained. The author’s turns of phrase are superb. He describes Begbie as looking “bitterly around the cavernous, nicotine-stained bar, like an arrogant aristocrat finding himself in reduced circumstances.” Such prosaic descriptions are often laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes the comedic moments come at the expense of a character’s delusions, such as when the loveable Spud takes a job interview and allows himself to believe that it has gone well and he’s a shoe-in for the role. More often than not the darkest of gallows humour punctuates the pages as one character or another tests positive for HIV, or another death is reported among the social circle.
It is no easy task to summarise the plot of ‘Trainspotting’. It’s easiest to say that the film deviates wildly from its source material, though certain key moments of the cinematic adaptation are lifted directly from the pages of Welsh’s work. Begbie lobbing the empty pint glass from the balcony of the bar, for example, survives intact. The book opens with Renton, struggling to overcome his heroin addiction, buying slow-release suppositories to ease his cravings. When he has the junkie’s inevitable problem of the runs, he’s forced to void his bowels in the lavatory of a bookmaker’s shop, thus losing the suppositories in the bowl. A dilemma faces him. When he opts to splash about on the urine-soaked floor and plunge his hand into the unflushed toilet to fish around for the suppositories, Welsh crafts a visceral and memorable opening sequence. It gives readers access to the state of mind and priorities of somebody hooked on heroin that may be incomprehensible to anybody who hasn’t struggled with addiction. Unsurprisingly, this too makes it into the film. The other moment that everybody remembers is the death of the baby, but this is handled differently in the book. The way in which Sick Boy later talks about the infant’s death is another psychological insight into a culture of indifference where everything serves only addiction.
Rather than following a linear pathway from beginning to end, with an obvious plot where each action moves the story inexorably forward, ‘Trainspotting’ is more of a collection of short stories incorporating a ragtag group of friends. This may alienate or confuse some readers, though is an understandable choice given the detachment of the characters from any form of normal life or drive to succeed. The saturation of bad language on every page will also prove too much for some, although inevitably you can become as desensitised to it as the characters speak them so reflexively. It can take a while for especially non-Scottish readers to tune in to the accent in the sections written in dialect (relatively rare – don’t let the opening pages fool you). “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling,” is the opening sentence, by way of illustration. Even once your eyes and ears adjust, regional dialect and specific place names can leave non-native readers all at sea. Be prepared to go with the flow and accept that some in-jokes and cultural references may sail over your head.
The passage of three decades has made some aspects of the book more notable. It is male-dominated. There are female characters, but they are often the sexual conquests or interests of the men, and their voices don’t carry the story. Untempered by obligations, the males are hedonistic and have been hardened by the brutality of their world. Their friendships and associations are questionable, and are rooted in drugs, alcohol or violence. Mark Renton is the continuity character who opens and closes the narrative. Others pop in and out. Davie Mitchell narrates two disparate episodes in different sections of the book. His second story, ‘Bad Blood’, is among the most disturbing of the vignettes as he takes a vicious and murderous revenge upon the man responsible for him contracting HIV.
Popular culture grounds the book in the real world throughout its pages. Movie action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme is mentioned in the first paragraph. There’s a chapter named ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ after the song of the same name by cult 80s band ‘The Smiths’. A train journey via ‘Inter Shitty’ recalls the good old days of nationalised railway services. There is a strong and overriding sense of time and place. You can’t escape it. For anyone who’s wondered why on earth the story is called ‘Trainspotting’, the answer comes towards the end of the novel when Renton and Begbie have a chance encounter at a railway station with Begbie’s father. Very little is said, yet much is explained. That is essentially the power of Welsh’s writing. ‘Trainspotting’ is strong, distinctive and uncompromising storytelling. That in itself is more than enough to recommend it. The novel has withstood the initial test of time so can certainly be considered a modern classic.
The Folio Society’s thirtieth anniversary edition of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ is packaged in a slipcase that has two parallel lines cut out of it, recalling the railway tracks referred to by the title. Its superb design is full of great details like that. The blue-green colour contrasts with the bright yellow cloth-bound hardback cover. Nicole Rifkin’s pop art-style colour illustrations augment the pages. A new introduction by author and English literature expert John Sutherland delves further into the Scottish dialect and provides useful clarity for the uninitiated.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: 6th July 2023 Buy ‘Trainspotting’