The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
 by Irvine
by Irvine Welsh

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Let’s start by comparing three books.

In 1954, a British author published a novel (later turned into a
successful film) about young men who adopt strange, ritualistic
behavior and engage in savage acts of random violence.  William
The Lord of the Flies was considered a fabulistic allegory.

In 1962, another British author published a novel (later turned into
a successful film) about young men who adopt strange, ritualistic
behavior and engage in savage acts of random violence.  Anthony
A Clockwork Orange was considered a dystopian science
fiction tale.  

In 1993, a third British author published a
novel (later turned into a successful film)
about young men who adopt strange,
ritualistic behavior and engage in savage
acts of random violence.  This time, Irvine
Trainspotting was considered
an intensely realistic novel that accurately
portrayed the state of the punk rock
generation as its members reached

So which changed most during that 40
year period: British fiction or British
society?   Did the shift to intense realism
herald a new tone in the narrative in the 1990s?  Or did reality
simply catch up with the nihilism anticipated by Golding and
Burgess?   Or, as some suggest, did the nihilism embodied in books
and movies such as
A Clockwork Orange help shape a society that
mimicked their gratuitous violence?  Or, more likely, did each of
these books tap into some undercurrent, perhaps barely discernible
at the time Golding wrote, that would eventually grow into such a
torrent of destruction—and self-destruction—that not only literary
critics but even police detectives felt compelled to praise
Trainspotting for its true-to-life qualities?  

Readers of Welsh’s novel are likely to mull over questions of this
sort.  I can't imagine anyone grappling with this book who doesn’t
stop to ask, à la David Byrne: "How did we get here?"  How did Jack
Merridew, the murderous young bully of
Lord of the Flies, get off
the island and on to the streets of Edinburgh? I'm sure more than a
few readers also wonder how we can send him back.  

Of course, the immediate cause of the young men’s problems in
Trainspotting is heroin.  That is, when it’s not speed or hash or
valium or a heady combination of cyclozine and methadone.  Or, in a
pinch, alcohol, which seems to spur more violent outbursts than any
of the controlled substances during the course of Welsh's book.  

Welsh constantly shifts his focus from the character to character,
watching as they stumble and fall under the load of their recurrent
self-medicating.  Some such as Mark Renton, the closest thing to a
'hero' in this decidedly unheroic book, try to break the habit—
Renton's tendency to introspection and critical reflection provide
this book with its best, most thought-provoking passages.  On the
other extreme, we find Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin, who avoids
sobriety the same way Dracula flees from the dawn, and hardly has a
coherent moment during the course of the entire novel.  But he fares
better than Spud, who ends up in prison, or Tommy, Matty, Billy
and others who don't survive to the final page of

But what’s a story without a love interest or a brave man of action?  
Simon 'Sick Boy' Williamson gets to play the romantic lead in the
book, but he robs from the same ladies he romances, and may be the
most shrewdly amoral member of the gang.  Yet he is Mr. Nice Guy
compared to action-oriented Francis Begbie, a sociopath who
probably can be considered the leader of these addicts, if only
because he the most violent of the bunch.  This bold alpha male also
sees himself as something of a teacher, his lessons imparted by the
(in Begbie’s words) "discipline ay the basebaw bat." But even
Beggars's friends fear him; although having this loose cannon in
their company ensures that no one else will mess with them when
they are on the town.  

Much like Burgess in
A Clockwork Orange, Welsh allows his
characters to speak in their own street jargon—and the novel even
comes with a glossary at the back.  But, once again, what was an
imaginative exercise in the earlier book has become a realistic turn
Trainspotting.  Welsh captures the authentic language of the
streets in his novel, and much of the power of the prose derives from
the author’s ear for the vernacular of his native Edinburgh—which,
as presented in these pages, is invariably blunt, and often offensive.  

Welsh is so convincing in recounting his sordid tale, that it's hard to
believe that he didn't experience many of these incidents firsthand.  
I note that his biography includes arrests for petty assaults and a
conviction for vandalism.  On the other hand, Welsh played guitar in
rock bands, studied for an MBA at an Edinburgh university, and
made money as a speculator in residential property in North
London—all this before the success of
Trainspotting.  In an
interview from 2006, he called himself a "gentleman of leisure" and
remarked that his life was quite boring.

To some degree,
Trainspotting is a novel about boredom, although
different from that enjoyed by a "gentleman of leisure."  The
violence in this novel rarely has a purpose or reason; it’s merely a
distraction from the characters’ dead-end lives.  Drugs fill a similar
purpose here.  Under the sway of heroin, these alienated characters
suddenly reveal a determination and a purpose—to feed their
addiction—that they lack in other contexts.  I was inevitably
reminded, while reading this book, of the strange boast of trumpeter
Chet Baker, a notorious addict, who took pride in how hard he
worked on the jazz circuit.  And this was no idle claim.  Baker needed
to gig all the time to pay his drug bills;  in a bizarre twist his need for
heroin had turn him to a shining exemplar of the Puritan work ethic.  
A similar process is at work in
Trainspotting:  the characters lead
empty, unproductive lives, but they are constantly busy and the
novel, as a result, is filled with incident and action.  Welsh smartly
realizes that a narrative about boredom needs to be exciting—
paradoxically, that adds to the realism—and, as a result, his
characters constantly stay on the move.

But the excitement here comes at a price.  In the final pages, this
gang of druggies decide to make a big score.  They secure a large
quantity of very pure heroin and aim to sell it to a London dealer for
a huge profit.  Fearful of the consequences if they are caught with
such a big load of narcotics, each individual resorts to his most
characteristic escapist behavior pattern—Begbie to violence,
Second Prize to intoxicants, Sick Boy to conning a young lady, and
so on.  But now an ethical issue intrudes, the classic question of
whether a gang of thieves can trust each other.  Welsh masterfully
works out the odd interpersonal dynamics at play here and manages,
in a fragmented book filled with provocation, to pull everything
together with a climactic close, one moreover designed to leave the
reader mulling over the (dare I use this word in the context of such a
nihilistic book?)
philosophical implications.

Many were distrubed by this novel when it came out.  Politicians
denounced it—Senator Bob Dole, who admitted that he hadn’t read
Trainspotting, accused it of glorifying drug use—and it was
reportedly left off of the Booker Prize shortlist because two of the
judges found it offensive.  Yet an inescapable moralistic quality
permeates this novel, despite all superficial appearances to the
contrary.  If I wanted to convince a teenager not to use drugs, this
would probably be the first book I would have them read.   And I
wouldn't be surprised if some addicts broke their habit after reading
Trainspotting.  That glimpse in the mirror was just too sordid to

So the complicated lineage of violent books accused of spurring
violent action gets even more complicated because of Irvine Welsh.  
After all, if social order can descend into nihilism, and the process
get anticipated in fiction, why can't the opposite also happen?  In a
book that provoked a lot of unanswered questions, this was hardly
the least of them. In fact, it just might be the one that lingers on your
mind the longest after you walk away from this troubling and
transfixing work.
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