Do we need Irvine Welsh?

So he's on a roll and non-readers can't get enough of his rip- off rave fiction. But, Chris Maume asks...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
With three best-sellers, a hit movie in the bag and a Channel 4 series in the offing, Irvine Welsh is on a roll. He is everything that Martin Amis would like to be. When he injected himself into the mainline of popular culture three years ago he was hailed by the Face (and they should know) as the Poet Laureate of the chemical generation. "Trainspotting," one critic said, "deserves to sell more copies than the Bible." I'm not convinced. Though his work is suffused with mad energy, it's a rip-off spotter's dream, and when he writes about anything other than sex and drugs and violence he is like a junkie without his gear.

But whatever I might say, he's hot, a literary Britpopper, an early-to- middle-aged Turk. All manner of literary heavyweights, from James Kelman to Rabelais, have been wheeled in as points of comparison. He is fantastically popular with undergraduates (who, a recent survey revealed, are otherwise mostly into Roald Dahl and Stephen King). But he is also a hero for the post-literate hordes fumbling and raving their way to whatever kind of adulthood awaits them.

Trainspotting has shifted nearly half a million units. Though extremely well done, it is a book so much of its time that Welsh has pronounced it already out of date (so much for the idea that all the best works of art have a timeless appeal). His current offering, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance, sold 100,000 copies in advance. How many would have bought it had they known what it was going to be like?

Ecstasy is quite remarkably bad. The alleged Shakespeare of the drugs culture has been found out. He purports to provide a voice for a vast, dispossessed generation. Well, I'd like to see the figures. More likely is the notion that he provides vicarious thrills for a vacuous, self-obsessed generation.

Welsh apparently spent part of the Eighties as a punk junkie in London - though Will Self, another modish writer who wears his history of drug abuse like a distinguished service medal on his puffed up chest, has cast doubts on this area of Welsh's field research, saying he finds it almost impossible to believe that Welsh was once a heroin addict.

After making a tidy sum - around pounds 50,000, apparently - from buying and selling bedsits during the property boom, Welsh returned to Scotland, working as a training officer with Edinburgh Council and studying for an MBA. During his first Trainspotting interviews he downplayed his conformist years, asking journalists not to mention his job on the council as it didn't quite fit in with his image. Hardly surprising. It's like finding out that Janis Joplin used to be a lollipop lady or Aleister Crowley was once a volunteer with the Samaritans.

Whether or not Welsh paid his junkie dues, it has to be said that Trainspotting is a very good book indeed, its scratching away at the sores of life executed in a freewheeling kaleidoscope of Scots dialect, stretched over a framework of loosely related short stories. The shadow of Kelman loomed heavy over proceedings - but then nearly every artist starts out by imitating his role models. In an early interview, Welsh was asked about the connection. "Aye, I've read some Kelman," he muttered.

I've nothing against artistic rip-offs - Oasis have built a successful career on them. What's important is that the work becomes more than the sum of its parts. Trainspotting was; so, to a lesser extent, were the follow-ups, The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares. Ecstasy is not. It remains rooted in influences it seeks to transcend by adding liberal dollops of drugs, gore and psychopathology.

The Acid House was a collection of loosely related short stories (sound familiar?). Welsh was still on form, though, experimenting with new narrative techniques (new for him, that is), carried along by his wit and scatological exuberance as he began to explore characters other than junkies and psychos (though there were still plenty of those). Sure, he plagiarised a few of his influences along the way - Dahl and F Scott Fitzgerald - but it was enough to make you think that the potential was there for something deeper.

Similarly, Marabou Stork Nightmares was an attempt to extend his repertoire. The story happens mostly in the mind of a man in a coma, and, owing to its typographical fiddling to convey different levels of thought and experience of the hospitalised anti-hero, echoes the structure of Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine. Again, there was promise, though when it failed to reach the short list for a Scottish literary award, the McVitie Prize, the chairman of the judging panel said: "Irvine Welsh is a brilliant writer but he is not yet strong enough to get there." Welsh responded with: "You can't expect people who are awarding prizes to be up with the culture."

Don't expect Ecstasy to reach many shortlists. The first of its three novellas, "Lorraine Goes To Livingston", the story of a ravehead nurse, a bad romance writer, her pornography-addict husband and a necrophiliac television celebrity, is utterly unbelievable as a collection of characters and fails to cut it as sub-Orton farce. His handling of the tale crucially demonstrates that when he moves away from reportage and processed memoirs and lets his imagination run free, all he can dish up, like the rave records he enjoys, is a melange of samples of other people's work.

The most objectionable feature of this story is his excruciatingly patronising attempt to render dialects other than his native Scots. "Just wait vor this little beauty to go n zet, with that there rigour martiz, then we'll ave ourzelves zum praber vun!", Freddie the necrophiliac says, as he applies splints to the penis of a recently deceased rugby player. Zum praber vun. If West Country folk talk like that, I'm that bloke from the Wurzels. Welsh also has a stab at a Mills and Boon parody. It's unspeakably bad. Not because of the subject matter, sheep-shagging in Regency England, which has plenty of Ortonian potential, but because he tosses it away, committing the unforgiveable sin of dullness.

The second story, "Fortune's Always Hiding", is quite simply atrocious - wrong-headed in conception, utterly superficial in execution. The idea of a love affair between Samantha, a beautiful woman with no arms due to what Welsh coyly calls Tenazadrine, and Dave, a pathologically violent West Ham fan who spends his spare time masturbating into a melon partially hollowed out and filled with cold cream, is ludicrous enough. Samantha turns out to be the mutant offspring of a Michael Winner movie, bent on revenging herself in Old Testament style, hacking off the limbs of the men responsible for marketing the disastrous drug. In one episode, she abducts the German drug salesman's baby, pins its arms in a vice, saws them off and sends them to him in a plastic bag.

There's something too calculating in the grotesquerie, a belief that the artist's duty to stretch boundaries can be met by simply cranking up the volume to ear-bleeding levels and finding a new taboo to break. Look at me everybody! I'm the new William Burroughs, the new Marquis de Sade, the new Ferdinand Celine! I think not. This is literature for the post-literate society. Books for people who don't usually read books.

The evidence points to the fact that once Welsh leaves the safehouse of what he claims to know best - the dark side of the drug culture in all its egocentric squalour - he flounders, taking refuge in crass shock tactics that tell us nothing about the human spirit and deliver only the kind of prose you might get from a schoolboy sicko or a Broadmoor writing therapy class.

The problem for Welsh is, what can he do next that is even more sensational? How do you top having one of your characters anally penetrate a recently charred corpse then douse the anus with lighter fuel and set fire to it to avoid detection? The challenge, surely, is to create one or two believable, rounded characters who don't do drugs and aren't viciously violent. He says his aim is to make "really flawed characters that have got redeeming features, so people can say, `I don't really like that character, but I can understand a bit where they've come from'."

Get back in your padded cell, Mr Welsh, and give us a rest. Alternatively, go out and live a bit more. That way you might find something else to write about.