Startling, brutal, ambitious, vulgar, intriguing, provocative, odious and emotional. The parade of adjectives you could throw at Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and would stick reveals the great range and breadth of life that this 20th century classic contains. Often described as a ‘series of short stories’, Trainspotting covers a sequence of narratives depicting the life of Mark Renton and his pals, referred to as the Skag Boys due to their notorious heroin love-affair, as they go about their drink and drugs fuelled existence in Leith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. More often than not, the narrative is delivered in the first-person through the distinct voices of the characters, usually Renton who might be deemed the book’s protagonist. Along with works such as Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting is completely original in its textual experimentation to reproduce the voices of urban Scotland and of the Scottish working classes. The narrative voices of Renton and co are defined by their vibrant Scots dialect, loaded with all its profanities, musicality and character, and the book would have been a drastically different, and inferior, one if written within the confines of what we call “Standard English”. The narrative’s twists and shifts in perspective, being told in the first-person by several characters but then also in the third-person at times, gives the book as a whole a very rounded feel and provides almost an encircling, panoramic shot of the lives of its characters in Leith. To call Trainspotting ‘a series of short stories’, I feel, is unjust. A short story is more often than not a complete, ‘boxed-off’ (in the sense of not relying on other pieces for finality), final piece, and although you might find a collection of short stories which relay a common theme, or a common location, or perhaps a recurrent character, I cannot think of another book which treats character and narrative as Welsh does here and for this he must be given credit. To me, it felt more like a novel, but a novel of ambitious experimentation. Welsh seems to have looked at all the tools available to an author to tell a story and wondered “why restrict myself to one, when I can use the whole bloody lot?!”
With so much experimentation going on it can be difficult to slip comfortably into the ‘novel’, but after a couple of pages have elapsed and the little Scots voice in your head has found its rhythm, it is a gripping and intriguing book. Intriguing in its ability to shock from the very beginning as we find Rents rummaging through a blocked public toilet full of his own, and others’, defecation in search of a pack of recently acquired pills. Such narratives, replete with nothing less than a rich variety of profanities, are the bread and butter of Trainspotting. This may lead critics to label Welsh’s work as insolent, vulgar, disreputable and perhaps even unrealistic. But I felt instead that Welsh’s Leith and its characters are realistic to the point of almost being tangible; you can smell their stench, hear their aggressive voices and relate to their moral dilemmas. Which is one of Trainspotting’s greatest achievements; despite their doubtlessly contemptible, sordid behaviour, the reader still empathises with these characters and you even grow to like them. Why? Although from the outset such characters, fictional or non-fictional I might add, appear to occupy a completely different galaxy to ourselves, Trainspotting offers a window into the emotional complexities of characters like Renton and Sick Boy, and it allows us to think on their terms and put ourselves in their shoes, where strangely and perhaps scarily we find that we have more things in common with these people than we like to imagine. Emotions, friendships, relationships with other human beings. At the end of the day we are all human beings.
“We have found an intimacy which may have otherwise eluded us. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to become a human being. Better late than never though, believe you me.”
When giving reasons for why we like to read literature, you might often get the idealistic, romantic response that reading allows us to transport ourselves to an unfamiliar place, to nigh-experience an exotic culture, to empathise with characters far from ourselves which give us a fuller vision of the world we inhabit. We might think of Wordsworth describing the beauties of the Lakes and the plights of the Cumbrian man on his rural farm, revealing the stories of the ‘common man’ to the poetic world. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road allows us to swing into the zipping, jazz and alcohol-imbued lifestyles of 1940s America and run along Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady in his wild, exuberant adventures. Trainspotting does the same, giving readers an honest insight into the lifestyles of a generation growing up in the looming shadow of Maggie Thatcher whose government rid Britain of thousands of jobs belonging to working class lads like Renton and Sick Boy. There doesn’t seem to be much left for them, except for shooting up and attending each other’s funerals, but this, so it seems, is simply how things were. But Trainspotting is also a celebration of life and a call for solidarity. The vibrancy and unpredictability of Renton and co shows the liveliness of youth and friendship despite the squalid lifestyles they have been dealt, and Welsh’s desire for us to empathise with such characters allows us to regard equivalent characters in our own society as worthy of attention, and indeed to persuade us to stop demonizing particular sections of society and instead to remain together in hope of positive social change.