Book review: The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

 

Doug Johnstone
Friday 16 May 2014 16:08
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From that lurid title onwards this is a visceral romp of a novel, a manic endorphin rush of a read that nevertheless also manages to sneak in some serious commentary on the state of American society, putting this book right up there with the best of Irvine Welsh’s work.

The big strength to Welsh’s writing has always been the compelling voices of his characters and so it is here, but this time there’s not a whiff of Leith vernacular, Welsh instead delivering the crazed and troubled mindsets of his two young Miami-based women utterly convincingly.

The action starts with a bang, as personal fitness trainer Lucy Brennan uses some of her finest kickboxing training to disarm a gunman who was attempting to shoot two fleeing victims on an almost deserted highway. Her bravery is filmed by another woman, Lena Sorenson, and the footage turns Lucy into an overnight celebrity.

Initially it looks like Welsh is going to focus his sights on the ridiculous media circus, and there are wonderfully funny elements scattered in here for laughs, but the author has bigger themes to tackle, and that celebrity angle gets pushed into the background by around halfway.

Instead the story focuses in acutely on the relationship between Lucy and Lena. The majority of the book is told from Lucy’s point of view, and she’s an extreme fitness freak, constantly counting calories and working out, casting a vitriolic eye at anyone around her who doesn’t meet her exacting standards.

“If you’re obese in Miami Beach you might as well be in the advanced stages of leprosy,” she says at one point, and her language and attitude towards those who she sees as less disciplined than herself are scathing.

This is bad news for Lena, an artist and sculptor struggling with self-esteem issues and compulsive eating, who weighs in at more than 200lbs when we first meet her. Lena enlists Lucy’s help to get into shape, and though Lucy is initially reluctant, she eventually takes to the task with too much relish, ending up drugging Lena, imprisoning her and subjecting her to a strict regime of diet and exercise. In the process, both women are transformed so much as to become virtually unrecognisable by the end of the book, personal transformation being one of the many themes Welsh is digging away at here.

Because at heart this is a book about the failed American dream. The pathological desire and compulsion for self-improvement runs strong in American society, and where better to shine a spotlight on it than in the infamously superficial and vacuous Miami?

The promise of becoming a better version of yourself is an alluring one – one that a million chancers use to their advantage to fleece ordinary people every day.

But what is genuine betterment? Lucy is sculpted and toned, a precise physical machine, but to what end, ultimately? She is obsessively controlling at the start, her maniacal drive stemming from unresolved childhood issues around sexual violence, so is her overly controlling attitude actually doing her any good?

This is also a book about addiction, like much of Welsh’s previous work. But gone are the drink and drugs – Lucy won’t even touch coffee because of the toxic effect it has on her body – replaced by an addiction to fitness in Lucy’s case, and eating in Lena’s.

Lucy is also addicted to extremely rough sex with both men and women, while Lena had previously channelled all her energies into her art, only to be demeaned and demoralised by a selfish, manipulative boyfriend jealous of her talent.

And where do the Siamese twins come into all this? Well, alongside Lucy’s media notoriety the story of two conjoined teenage girls from Arkansas has gripped the nation. One has a boyfriend and wants to take things further, while the other refuses. A surgical separation is on the cards, but the chances of survival for one of the twins are low. This obviously mirrors the symbiotic relationship between Lucy and Lena as the book progresses, though Welsh plays it with a fairly light hand.

One of the most impressive things about Welsh’s work is his literary sleight of hand. All of his books in one way or another have been commentaries on the society we live in, but that often gets overlooked because of the brazen gusto and the compulsive narrative drive of his prose, his wonderfully funny scatological set-pieces and the overpowering strength of his characters’ voices.

All of that is present in this novel, but underneath this is a deeply thoughtful and almost loving look at the unique nature of the American experience and mindset. To have managed all that is no mean feat. Welsh is a class act.

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