Trainspotting: The Book, The Movie, The CD, The Phenomenon
To say that Irvine Welsh's debut novel Trainspotting has caused a bit of a stir is like saying a tornado has caused a bit of a breeze. In the three years since its release in the UK, the book has elicited literary acclaim, sharp criticism, and cultish adoration. Sales are edging toward the half-million mark. It has been made into a film, already huge in Britain and due here in July (hence the book's corresponding US release); a theater adaptation is in its second West End production; and Irvine Welsh has gone from being an unknown "schemie" (from the Edinburgh schemes, the equivalent of American projects) to being fodder for tabloid headlines and literary supplements alike. Since the book's release, Welsh has completed three more, but its impact is such that he is still, as often as not, referred to as the "Trainspotting author."A ferocious and beautifully written account of the Edinburgh drug subculture, Trainspotting is hilarious and horrifying, thought-provoking and nerve-jangling. Part of the book's success lies in the fact that it manages to bridge the yawning gap between the "important" and the entertaining -- you're as likely to spot someone in paint-flecked overalls devouring it on a bus as you are someone in elbow-leathered tweed interpreting it in the snug of a pub.If Trainspotting doesn't finally do away with ideas of Scotland as a land of haggis and Highland flings, then nothing will. It gives Scotland's sentimental gloss a harsh scouring, revealing a pattern of junk, booze, and wretched anger beneath. There are too many characters in the book to list here, and perhaps too many to keep straight (one of Trainspotting's few flaws). Welsh gives voice to maybe 10 of them. Multiple narratives have become a staple of contemporary fiction, perhaps tiresomely so, but Welsh's switchboard voices work well. Though essentially plotless, disjointed, and even confusing, the book surges toward its end with the unity of an angry mob.The five characters who make up the bulk of the narrative are Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie, Second Prize, and Rents -- a/k/a Danny Murphy, Simon Williamson, Frank Begbie, Rab McLaughlin, and Mark Renton. (The misanthropic Rents, an emotional fortress possessing nine-tenths of a university degree and an indestructible drug habit, might be described as a protagonist of sorts.) They represent the completely out-of-it, don't-give-a-bollocks types who reside quite a distance beyond the bounds of "normal" society, and much of the criticism that has been leveled at the book concerns its unadorned portrayal of the finer points of their depravity. There is scatological slapstick, including an incident involving Rents, a blocked toilet, and a misplaced opium suppository; frequent violence, often instigated by the sociopathic Begbie, who'd as soon shove a glass in your face as look at you; and sexual shenanigans of every conceivable distortion -- again, an incident involving Rents stands out, wherein he seduces his brother Billy's pregnant widow in the lavatory at Billy's wake:It's a wee bit like throwing the proverbial sausage up a close, but ah find ma stroke n she tightens up. Ah think aboot how close she is tae poppin and how far up ah am, an ah can see masel stickin it in the foetus's mooth. Some concept, a shag and a blow-job simultaneously.Trainspotting is full of such grim particulars. More alarmingly, for those eager to find a single cause for society's ills, the book also catalogues the minutiae of drug dependency, along with the justifications of the dependent. There is no doubt that many will read this book for a morbid, vicarious thrill, if not as the initiation into the dark pleasures of nihilism that Welsh's harshest critics would insist it is. D.H. Lawrence wrote:Moralists have always wondered helplessly why "morbid" tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate before anything else can come to pass. Man must be stripped of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes ghastly process.As ghastly as Trainspotting sometimes is, it is a book that needed to have been written. These delinquents and little tyrants of Welsh's exist, and he neither patronizes them with labored dignity nor dismisses them as rotten-to-the-core, but lets them speak for themselves with eloquence, wit, and audacity.Trainspotting's dropouts seem to be beyond redemption, yet they somehow keep our sympathy. Surrounded by harshness, they maintain remarkable warmth and humor -- even occasional glimmers of compassion. Indeed, the pervasive gloom of their world makes these bright spots all the more radiant. Spud in particular is wonderfully good-natured, and it is agonizing to witness him struggling to sprout on such barren ground. "We'll nivir likesay, learn tae love oorsels, until we kin look eftir weaker things," he says, "likesay animals n that" -- which might sound platitudinous, except Spud knows that in the eyes of many, he and his ilk are little more than animals themselves. Not to mention that by saying anything so sentimental he is courting mockery, or even assault, from his cohorts. Even Rents, wallowing in the twisted satisfaction of violating his dead brother's wife, seems to ache with scuttled decency:Billy Boy told me I was ruining my life with that shite. He told me this on numerous occasions. It's been real Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What's it aw aboot. Aw Billy. Aw fuck sakes. Ah didnaeThere are sections in Trainspotting to break your heart, and there are many more that are tear-jerkingly funny. Almost all of the characters share a relentless, paint-stripping sense of humor. Laughter, it seems, is the one thing keeping the lot of them from plunging further into the dark, and often the one thing keeping us from putting the book aside in exasperation. The humor is sarcastic, but also self-effacing -- born of frustration and powerlessness, as with the jibes directed at the fearsome Begbie:We collect aw his stupidest, most sexist and violent quotes tae use whin impersonating him whin he's no aroond. We kin make oorsels almost ill wi convulsive laughter. The game hus an edge: thinking aboot how he'd respond if he found oot. Sick Boy hus even started makin faces behind his back. One day, either one ay us or the baith ay us'll go too far, and be marked by fist, bottle or subjected tae 'the discipline ay the baseball bat.' (One ay Begbie's choice quotes.)"Ay," by the way, means "of." For non-Caledonian readers at least, the main problem with Trainspotting must be its use of dialect. Though crucial to the music and authenticity of the book, the dialect makes Trainspotting somewhat difficult to read. The book does supply a glossary in the back, which dutifully explains the meaning of words like labdick, poppy, and gadge. Yet even the glossary makes mistakes, usually of omission, like giving "tidy" the denotation of "nice," when its meaning is often closer to "tough" (as in "he's a tidy cunt"). The glossary can be useful, but the writing is much more powerful if the reader can relax and let the language flow. Even through the most difficult patches of dialect, Welsh provides sufficient context for the meaning to emerge.The controversial film adaptation of Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle of Shallow Grave fame, tones down the dialect somewhat, and sacrifices some of the book's vigor in the process. Miramax, the film's U.S. distributor, even went as far as to rerecord some of the thicker brogue, a move some might see as a cop-out. The film as a whole -- inevitably, perhaps -- is more stylish than provocative, more shocking than haunting, and possesses only a fraction of the depth and complexity that make the book such a masterpiece. John Hodge's screenplay gives us characters who, while degenerate enough, are not nearly as rude or savage as Welsh's; neither are they, conversely, as poignant as the book's. Too often the film goes for the quick, obvious laugh. Spud, for instance, is reduced to a farcical figure, almost a parody of the book's good-hearted bad boy. Indeed, if the book travels the entire spectrum between human dignity and depravity, Trainspotting -- the movie -- offers little more than a few rinsed-out shades of gray. And some of the book's trenchant internal monologues -- reflections on anything from British politics to Sean Connery's distinguished movie career -- sound hokey and forced when given the form of dialogue.These criticisms aside, however, stylish and shocking aren't bad qualities for a movie to aim for. Boyle also does a fine job of capturing the book's blend of comic and horrific surrealism -- visually the movie is quite stunning. The film also has a terrific soundtrack (Capitol Records), containing an eclectic selection of tracks ranging from Lou Reed's soporific "Perfect Day" to Underworld's techno-poppish "Born Slippy." The acting is more than adequate, despite the excessive hamming of Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the fact that anti-hero Renton's (Ewan McGregor) glam-brat is just a little too cute for comfort. Movie adaptations of literary works usually come up short, and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting is no exception; but this might be less due to the movie's weaknesses than the book's breathtaking power.The English writer Will Self recently criticized Welsh's Trainspotting, in an article for the Observer, for its insensitive treatment of the drug problem, for "turning human tragedy into belly laughs." It's true that there is no anti-drug "message" behind Trainspotting, but its stark depiction of junkie life -- even as we laugh -- is so distressing as to make a mockery of this claim. In his essay accompanying Nick Waplington's book of photography, The Wedding, Welsh writes: "Nick's camera illuminates and exposes; it does not judge." The same could be said of Welsh's work -- his refusal to be didactic both exhilarates and infuriates readers. Through sheer observation, unencumbered by interpretation or commentary, we learn more about the problem than can possibly be taught.