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The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, by Irvine Welsh
Chips (and chivs) with everything
Friday 04 August 2006
It's only fitting that contained inside this particular title is the recipe for all of the fictive works of Irvine Welsh. "Scotland: the recipe for disaster. Take a cut of Calvinist repression, sprinkle on some Catholic guilt, add lots of alcohol and cook in a cold, dark, grey oven for 300-odd years. Garnish with gaudy, ludicrous plaid. Serve with chivs on the side."
Chivs, for the uninitiated, are nasty, damaging blows, usually delivered with a vicious instrument in a vicious fist. They're the repulsive northern currency that makes Scotland the most violent place in Europe, and that our protagonist Danny Skinner deals in very, very selectively, in order to maintain his place high in the social pecking order among his coterie of friends and foes in the Edinburgh port of Leith.
Danny Skinner, 25, is handsome, confident, popular and stylish, in a do-what- GQ-tells-you kind of way. He has a respectable job as an environmental health officer at Edinburgh Council, a smart flat and a beautiful girlfriend whom he loves. He gives every appearance of having managed to embrace the ethos of post-Thatcherite life in Scotland, without having entirely abandoned the dark old rites of booze and violence whose loss would set him adrift from the seductive anti-romance that continues to underpin the ordinary culture of his divided city, Edinburgh.
But appearances, especially in novels, are deceptive, and Danny is not quite so on top of such matters as he seems. Increasingly worried by the fact that he never knew who his father was, lately resentful of his mother's refusal to disclose it to him, Danny is coming to an awareness that his propensity for alcoholic oblivion, mirrored around him in all the bars and clubs of the city, might not be quite the harmless social fun that he has always regarded it as being. All young Danny really knows about himself is one lonely fact: that he is an alcoholic. The rest is a mystery to him, and that fills him with impotent rage.
Danny's rage finds an outlet, in the hapless person of Brian Kibby, who starts work in his office. Their previous acquaintance, as playground bully and schoolboy victim, is renewed. Brian is the polar opposite of Danny, a young man who is marooned in his culture, unable to communicate in the easy brutality of chivs and booze, and living instead a protracted childhood immersed in computer games and guilty masturbatory fantasy. He is emasculated by the sheer fear of what crimes against the soul one must commit to be seen as a man in his small society. He despises men like Danny, who wear their hard armour of violent cynicism with such confident ease.
The two men are Scottish duality personified, each imprisoned on opposite sides of the same coin. Much of the social struggle in Scotland has been between pious, frightened, teetotal respectability, and nihilistic, abandoned, booze-soaked oblivion. The antipathy between Brian and Danny perfectly represents the irreconcilable extremes of the national psyche.
In this case, however, the sheer force of Danny's hatred punches a weird hole in the natural order of things. As Danny's life goes into freefall, his brain unravelling along with the relationships with the two women in his life - his mother and his girlfriend - he realises that the massive alcohol binges, fights, sex sessions and drug fests, are having no physical effect on him at all. Instead, Brian Kibby is feeling Danny's pain. Carted from doctor to consultant with a terrible mystery ailment, Brian the abstainer ends up waiting for a transplant, bloated, yellow and in the throes of a liver cirrhosis seldom seen in any young man.
In this crucial respect, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs takes its place among two other great novels of dissociative personality, Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first, of course, was written by an Edinburgh man, while the second was created by an Irishman, which for these purposes is much the same matter. Does Welsh's novel stand up to such comparison? In some respects it's better.
The great liberation of Welsh's writing is its ability to capture the lust for freedom that can so often become such a pathetic and cowardly self-loathing in the drinking Celtic man. The tragi-comic defiance involved in refusing to become a cog in the wheel has long been celebrated by Welsh as well as excoriated. Grotesquerie and outrageousness, boldness and freshness, are often cited as being qualities that make Welsh such a brilliant writer. But what I like about his stuff is the way it transforms ugly everyday stuff and gives it the magnificent beauty that, in real life, characters like Welsh's seek as they spread mayhem.
It is in this respect that this novel - with its slightly mad title referring to a quest for Danny's father that remains almost incidental to its main narrative drive - is the most touching and beautiful of his writings. As Danny says himself, in a moment of clarity: "I think of Kibby and people like him. We do give them a hard time for being different; especially if we're depressive, alcoholic, self-loathing bullies. But the crucial point is that we're other things as well. We can be better." Welsh's book is full of hope and forgiveness. If he carries on like this, he'll start dragging the place back to the bloody enlightenment. And then where would we be?
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