Originally published in the Vancouver Review, Fall/Winter, 1995.

Poisoned Haggis

Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh - Minerva, 1994

Marabou Stork Nightmares - Irvine Welsh - Jonathan Cape, 1995

Wigger - Lawrence Braithwaite - Arsenal Pulp Press, 1995

Reviews by Michael Brockington


Welcome to the angry youth round-up, a trio of books celebrating the devil's trinity of sex, drugs and recreational violence.

First up: Trainspotting. Hard to call it novel, more a ragged accretion of short stories about twenty-something misfits from the Edinburgh slums. Several pieces first appeared in magazines, reinforcing the patchwork impression of Welsh's debut novel. Individual tales range from a couple paragraphs to 25 pages, hopscotching through the first-person confessions of a loose-knit group of long-time friends, occasionally detouring into the heads of family, lovers and remoter acquaintances. The book is populated by users and boozers, drunks, junkies and the occasional speed freak. Heroin predominates, the undertow that drags the story along. 

An initial sense of randomness eases as previously encountered narrators reappear and we grow familiar with the large cast. A lead character emerges by default -- Mark "Rents" Renton -- an engaging junkie whose mind we inhabit more frequently than most. Surprisingly perhaps, this fragmented approach develops a strong sense of character, balancing how each one sees his mates, against their interior sense of themselves. 

The vast majority of this novel is written in a sort of phonetic Scottish dialect, packed with obscure slang. It's daunting at first, to find yourself vocalizing the words in order to make sense of them. It impedes the flow from paper to brain, and combined with the rotating narrators makes initial entry to the novel challenging. After awhile, though, it becomes second nature to decipher, and the benefits emerge. This language creates a vital sense of place, and a heightened sensuality in that it is almost impossible not to hear it being spoken in the mind. By the end of the book I could identify new narrators by voice. I was even slipping into a bad Scottish accent myself, to the great annoyance of others. 

The first few vignettes are a shock to the system, a bleak examination of Scotland's underclass young. Hopelessly cynical, they are far gone past rebellion, into total rejection of the banal ugliness that passes for society around them. More than a separate tribe, they verge on a whole different species, seemingly cut off from every positive human emotion. Addiction is their only escape. The drug of choice varies: sex, alcohol, junk, violence -- whichever best succeeds in imposing its own ruthless purpose on these random lives. Human connection must be guarded against, a feeling so rare that its eruptions become almost impossibly painful, like a frostbitten limb temporarily warmed to life. 

This is a messy book, lacking all moral and physical hygiene. Blood, piss and all the other secretions and excretions are unavoidable, like threats of violence and the prospect of HIV infection. The body has its own little rebellion going on, even if mental resistance has long ended. 

Does it sound like a depressingly pointless read? As it picks up steam, piling indignity on humiliation, the novel becomes increasingly funny. A catalogue of the plot can't capture this: there are few intrinsic chuckles in shooting up, random violence, welfare fraud, statutory rape. But no situation seems to be so ugly that it can't degenerate further, tumbling into an abyss of absurd black comedy. 

The dialogue, too, is rich with a sort of deadpan junkie humour. This virtue, this one point of access makes it possible to invest emotionally in the characters. Possible and worthwhile. Because what emerges from this toxic stew, this poisoned haggis, is an affecting discourse on the values and limitations of friendship. The cumulative effect is like watching one of those nature documentaries on undersea trenches, awestruck at the ability of life to endure under unthinkable conditions. 

A key aspect of the novel, underlying the rage and hopelessness, is the insistent awareness that Scotland is a colonized nation. Renton is certainly aware of the dynamics of internalized oppression and the self-hatred that generates. 
It's nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. They're just wankers. We can't even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We're ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. Ah don't hate the English. Ah hate the Scots. 

In this light, it's hard not to see politics at play in the novel's use of dialect. It asserts a unique and valid Scottish voice, in defiance of spelling, grammar and such OED quibbles. It does such a masterful job, that on its rare appearances, it is it is the Queen's English that seems out of place, a sterile tongue. 

English colonialism, the internal tensions between Scots Nationalists and Orangeman Anglo loyalists, the defence of language -- I was reading Trainspotting as the Quebec referendum played out on the tube; the resonance was uncanny. 

Wigger , Vancouverite Andrew Braithwaite's first novel covers similar terrain, with the added overlay of gay S&M sex. Like Trainspotting, this very slim book (87 pp) consists of separate short stories with overlapping characters. 

Where Welsh's book is full of words, overflowing with language and incident like he can't stop himself writing, Braithwaite's text is lonely on the page, fighting a losing battle with the white space of the margins. Many stories run only a page or two, barely more than haikus on steroids. The read is so brief there's no opportunity to get inside the book before its over. 

The setting is vague; America perhaps, given the preoccupation with guns. Braithwaite also takes liberties with the language, but what he uses is a writer's shorthand: "He was 6ft3. By nightfall he was out w/Kevin." It's a textual idiom, disconnected from language as it is spoken or thought, and offers no sense of place or character. Combined with experimental text layouts, it offers a mental language distanced from the body. Like Welsh, Braithwaite seems to dislike using quotations to set off dialogue. This becomes a hindrance in Wigger, to the point of making it hard to tell who is speaking. Consequently, it gets difficult to tell the characters apart. 

Trainspotting seems to be written with the authenticity and shamelessness of an ex-junkie. Actual substance lurks behind the substance abuse. Wigger reads more like it was written while under the influence, skipping from thought to thought with a dislocated, jangling dream consciousness. And like a dream the book fades quickly from the mind. 

The author's description at the back of the book contains the following line: "His writing deals with issues of cross-cultural identity and class struggle in nihilistic urban settings." Unfortunately, I don't think there's much else to add.

Marabou Stork Nightmares is Irvine Welsh's third book, and more of a conventional novel in structure, with a single first-person narrator. It's a multi-threaded tale, and while partly set in the same desperate Scottish milieu as Trainspotting, it opens up more as a work of the imagination, less one of experience transcribed. 

It's hard to find a more passive narrator than a junkie on heroin, but Welsh manages this bit of mischief. Our hero, Roy Strang, has been in a coma for two years as Marabou Stork Nightmares begins, and he desperately struggles to remain in that state, while his traitorous body shows signs of returning to life. 

A very interior monologue indeed, the novel proceeds on three parallel tracks. One is a childish escape fantasy Roy has created as an alternative to life. His private world is a hallucinatory South Africa, filtered through a Boy's Own Adventure sensibility -- puerile British children's stories cranked to maximum intensity. Roy and his pal, lion-hunter extraordinaire Sandy Jamieson, are tracking the Marabou Stork, a vile predator/carrion-eater that's eradicating the flamingo flocks of Jambola Safari Park. It's an immature dreamworld, prone to sudden transformations, where everyone speaks in absurd British boarding-school idioms. Racial stereotypes abound, no women to be found, and the vendetta against the Stork is often sidetracked by picnics, the food described with fetishistic delight. Unfortunately for Roy, this is a dream that flips easily into nightmare. It's prone to eruptions of violence, unsettling intrusions of homosexual imagery, and premature encounters with the dread Marabou Stork. 

As the novel unfolds, Roy becomes increasingly aware of the voices of people in the real world -- nursing staff, visiting friends and family. They blather on endlessly, it seems, these exterior monologues. These unseen companions try to lure him to the surface, reminiscing or confessing, or simply taking his vegetable presence as an excuse to talk to themselves. 

As his fantasy world turns ugly, Roy escapes from the intrusive voices into his memories of growing up. This third strand provides the backbone of the novel, the context for the fantasy and the disembodied hospital chatter. In these strands of past and present reality, the phonetic Scottish familiar from Trainspotting reappears as the dominant voice. 

Roy's memories begin, "I grew up in what was not so much a family as a genetic disaster." Violence, physical and psychic is inescapable, both in Scotland and during the family's brief sojourn in South Africa, which provides the material for Roy's comatose fantasies. 

These toxic childhood reminiscences, when combined with Roy's fascination with ornithology remind me of nothing so much as a grotesque parody of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, recast with a clan of Scottish mutants and relocated from Corfu to the industrial squalor of Muirhouse. What develops is a portrait of oppression internalized, the brutalized child becoming brutal in desperate self-defence. As with fetal alcohol syndrome, the violence takes root before birth. 

The politics of British oppression are explored much further here than in Welsh's first novel, starting from the idea that the Scottish underclass are analogous to South African blacks under apartheid. Like Renton, Roy understands his ingrown rage is misdirected, but the closest targets are always easiest to hit. It's simpler to direct his anger against family, schoolmates, supporters of other football clubs, and of course the closest target of any: himself. The British suffer only by proxy. But the proxies, of course, are Scottish. 

Like Trainspotting's junkies, Roy is something of an unreliable narrator. His fantasy world is censored when it threatens to veer out of control, and his memories show signs of similar selectivity. We lack the multiple viewpoints that allowed us to build more reliable composite pictures in the previous novel; here the dialogue of Roy's bedside visitors is all we have for verification. 

Though his life is savage, once it gets filtered through Roy's first-person narration, events take on a matter-of-fact veneer of normality. Roy's own episodes of violence are understandable; even after he joins a local squad of soccer hooligans, hooked on the weekend violence as surely as any drug, he remains sympathetic. This is inevitable, in a way. It's difficult, perhaps impossible, to read a first person narrative without identifying with the lead. We are sharing their mind, trained to empathy by a lifetime of literary experience. Welsh is determined to make this a dangerous reflex. 

Marabou Stork Nightmares is a pitiless novel, no mistake. In themselves, incidents may be no uglier than those in Trainspotting, but they take on a far sharper edge in counterpoint to Roy's sanitized African fantasies. It is bleak novel, and uncompromising, but somehow not one I found depressing. 

When the three narrative strands come together, Roy emerges from his coma in a climax that is unforgivably cruel, and entirely comprehensible. Immersed in the first person, we have nowhere to hide. 

I went back to the start of the novel, trying to understand how we reached this point, and encountered again the opening epigram, from none other than PM John Major: "We should condemn more and understand less." The layers of irony are bitter as cyanide.

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