The genre kicked off with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, but there is a stampede of young writers following in his footsteps, turning out titles like Intoxication, Wasted, Cocaine and Disco Biscuits. Every publishing house worth its salt now has its stable of cool young cutting-edgers, turning out an endless stream of variations on the theme. This cutting- edge-ness is something publishers are keen to stress: Krissy Kays, for example, author of Wasted, born 1972, "was educated at various clubs, festivals and parties" according to her blurb, while H R McGregor, author of the forthcoming Shrodinger's Baby, "lives on a narrowboat". It's cool to make Will Self look like a grandad, despite all his brave penetration of crack dens, etc, etc, detailed in Junk Mail, published way back in 1995. For Will himself is no slouch when it comes to druggy reminiscence.
Stage and screen are following publishing's suit. Irvine Welsh's new play, You'll Have Had Your Hole, has as its three main characters a trio that one reviewer described as "brutal, drug-dealing sociopaths"; meanwhile, Hollywood is planning to serve up a biopic of the life of Hunter S Thompson, gonzo journalist and substance abuser supreme, with Johnny Depp in the title role.
But have we had enough of starkly-portrayed, chemically-stimulated outsiders? Welsh's play has opened in Leeds to very mixed reviews, and a number of the new wave of novels have been roundly slated by the critics. It is, of course, a great mistake to think that taking drugs makes you more interesting as a person. But even if you've a simply fascinating interior life, attempting to portray what it's like to be on drugs is very difficult. It tends to bear very little relation to the actual sensory experience. So welcome back to the Sixties-style drug bore, coming out with stream-of-consciousness descriptions that leave their audience either (if they've taken the drug in question) thinking "Yes, yes, get on with the plot" or (if they haven't) none the wiser. For example, Dennis Cooper, in his new novel Guide (Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99), describes some wasted friends: "Robert was haze - on the inside at least. Thoughts sort of... frittered around. Skinwise, forget it. Might as well go ahead and die than... live... like... Tracy: xklijmpprtizk... "
As Cooper admits, in an interview conducted by Irvine Welsh in Dazed and Confused magazine, "I know that when you're on acid, you try to note down the thought, and then when you come down it just says something like 'Orange'. I mean, it's amazing how beyond language it is. It's so hard to write about." Welsh agrees: "It's like waking up from a dream and it's all slipped through your hands... there's no terms of reference to bring it back." (It's all very profound and there's lots more of it, if you're interested.)
But people just go on trying and trying. In Camden Girls (Penguin 6.99) by Jane Owen, the main character Juno is rolling a joint. It takes some time: "First find the box with all the naughty drug taking paraphernalia then take three cigarette papers stick em together in the time honoured way lick the seam on the camel light empty the tobacco into the papers where's the bloody dope here it is light the flame burn one side of the sticky lump of black cannabis resin watch the thin stream of blue blue smoke shoot upwards and spin like a tornado..." and on and on in similar vein for the rest of the paragraph or indeed the rest of the page because if there is one thing writing about drugs tends to do it is make the writer kind of forget about any boring old square things like hey kids paragraphs full stops commas capital letters and stuff which is very cool and spontaneous for about two pages but then tends to make the reader more "out of it" than any drug could possibly do. Unless. The writer is of the opposite school. And goes for terseness. And very short phrases. Again for spontaneity's sake.
The second time around, however, just like the first, it is only the best writers who can get away with being off their faces in the long-term. Duncan Fallowell, novelist and travel writer, edited Drug Tales, an anthology published in the Seventies by Hamish Hamilton. "I was certainly very involved and I took lots of drugs myself, and I know you can't write a book when you're stoned. You can have an experience worth writing about when you're stoned, it really opens you up and erodes inhibitions, but when you get down to producing work, you have to be sober." Drugs, he says, produce a great sensitivity to language, but undermine all notions of structure. "Drugs gave William Burrows a certain manic quality that he could translate in the cold light of day. Kerouac, who made a genre out of what I call 'splurge' writing, wrote when he was stone cold sober. Because the experience is intense for the writer doesn't mean it will be intense for the reader, unless the writer has the art to convey it."
In essence, the new breed are very similar to the drug-fuelled writers of 20 years ago, according to Noel Murphy, promotions manager at Waterstones. "They don't differ except in the milieu they are writing about, which is now rave culture. If they have done it well, their writing can have great individuality and really reflect the scene. Some will become classics that reflect their time, like The Doors of Perception or Fear and Loathing or On The Road, all of which still sell in huge quantities." The
trouble is the publishers who milk a theme to death. "Publishers try to catch on to what is current more than they ever have done before," says Noel Murphy. "They look at the success of Irvine Welsh and think 'We must get someone to write a book like that'. It happens to all sub- genres; the writing becomes formulaic, it loses its originality, and the quality goes down."
As well as in print, the drug bore is also alive and well in the pub and the club. Glorying in one's particularly and excitingly rebellious, nihilistic fucked-upness is almost as much fun for some as actually taking the stuff, according to Caroline, a clubber in her twenties. Caroline prefers not to give her full name because at work, she has to keep quiet about her weekend recreational activities - she wishes others would be equally close-mouthed. "The worst drug bore in any club is the one who will come up to you and say 'What have you taken?' just so they can tell you what they've been taking," she complains. Students, she says, are particular offenders. "They do a lot more talking than taking. They go on at length about the best trip they've ever had or the best speed they've ever taken. For people like that, the drug is the end in itself, rather than the means of having a good time. And often they don't actually buy drugs; they'll smoke yours, saying 'What's this crap? You should have tried the stuff I had last night'." And boasting about getting hold of the stuff, let alone taking it, is enough to drive listeners into an agony of ennui. "I've got a friend who lives in Manchester who is always on about going over to Moss Side to see his dealer," says Jenny, 30. "He and his mates all compete over who's got the hardest dealer in the roughest area. They tell endless dull anecdotes that always end up 'and five minutes after we left, the police turned up'."
So, feel free to ingest what you want, of course. Just don't tell the rest of us. And you probably shouldn't think about adding another volume to the mountains of psychedelic green, pink and yellow covers that are currently cluttering up the bookshops. Even the guru of the new wave, Irvine Welsh, has had enough. "I've kind of reached the stage now where, if there's any reference to drugs or music on the dust jacket of a book, I'll put it straight down," he told one interviewer recently. "It doesn't matter what culture it comes from, there's got to be a good story there. It's like music - you've got to have the tunes."Reuse content