Irvine Welsh flogs the ‘Trainspotting’ generation to death
Dead Men’s Trousers review: a near parodic onslaught of sexual sleaze, savage exploitation, miserable cynicism, grotesque violence and male sentimentality
Irvine Welsh: writes with almost none of the stylistic precision, or satiric distance, necessary to prevent things proving wearisome. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Dead Men’s Trousers
Irvine Welsh has spent the last 25 years exhausting an initially vital creation. When his debut novel Trainspotting appeared in 1993, it introduced us to an array of characters whose antic lives, nefarious obsessions and social indigence were imagined with a freshness of voice and candour of observation that was brutal, squalid and, above all, full of life. Begbie, Sick Boy, Renton, Spud – these were characters whose complex and rebarbative sensibilities were captured with an energy near impossible to escape. From the streets and skag-dens of Leith, they radiated an exuberant misery.
Welsh closed this excursion by leaving us with a picture of an assembly of characters whose existence looked set to follow a predictable pattern: more poverty, more violence, more alienation and addiction. Except, that is, in the case of Renton, who having stiffed his friends by making off with the proceeds of a drug deal, left the book contemplating the freedom of a life in Amsterdam.
In the years that have elapsed since 1993, Welsh has produced a series of disappointing works exploring the early and later lives of Renton and his cohort. Porno (2002) revisited the tribulations of the quartet 10 years after the events described in Trainspotting. Skagboys (2012), a prequel to Welsh’s debut, traced Renton and Sick Boy’s inaugural descent into heroin addiction. The Blade Artist (2016) brought us up to date with the fortunes of Begbie and his reinvention as “Jim Francis”, a putatively gentle and abstemious artist living in California with his family.
The characters brought to life with such aesthetic vigour a quarter of a century ago deserve a better valediction than this
Dead Men’s Trousers, Welsh’s latest contribution to the saga of the boys from Leith, takes place between the summers of 2015 and 2016 and sees Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud cross paths for what one hopes will be the final time. One of them, we are told, will be dead by the close of the book.
Begbie, still an acclaimed artist living in California, remains an ostensibly reformed character: equable, abstemious, married with children. Sick Boy is a sex-obsessed cynic and misogynist who lives in London and runs an escort agency called Colleagues. Renton is a wealthy and successful manager of DJs who spends his time complaining about flying business class all over Europe and America. Spud, meanwhile, remains in Leith. Ruined years ago by an act of generosity (for which Renton bears responsibility), he is now a loveable wreck: practically destitute, addicted to drugs and alcohol, devoted to his little dog.
The action of the book is driven by several objectives. Renton wants to free himself from the past by making financial reparations to the friends he betrayed years ago. Begbie wants to make Renton experience how it feels to be cheated, and to indulge his passion for what he thinks of as the moral quality of violence. Sick Boy wants to exact revenge on Renton. Spud, the only vivid and engaging character here, simply longs for a life.
Welsh attempts to use the collision of these aspirations to say something about the nature of ageing and redemption, and about the means by which it is possible (or otherwise) to live well under late capitalism: the book’s four parts carry titles like “December 2015: Another Neoliberal Christmas”.
The novel that results is exhausting, perfunctory and inelegant. Welsh has a habit of ascribing to his characters mini-political and metaphysical speeches that are often at variance with their natures, and which are almost always clumsily deployed. Such irritations, however, are minor in comparison to the broader concerns of the book.
Like much of Welsh’s work, Dead Men’s Trousers delivers a near parodic onslaught of sexual sleaze, savage exploitation, miserable cynicism, grotesque violence and male sentimentality. Yet it does so with almost none of the stylistic precision, or satiric distance, necessary to prevent these things proving wearisome. At one stage a character witnesses an episode of something close to human butchery and “gasps in stunned silence”. Such descriptions are hardly rich with the breath of life. But they are mesmerically inert and morally void.
When we are not met with this kind of carelessness, we are subjected to numerous instances of overwriting (“Here’s a story that will interest you . . . he snaps in a way that permits no dissent from this contention”) and prose so unintentionally melodramatic as to be funny: “She knew then he was a killer! Did she really expect him to change?”
The characters brought to life with such aesthetic vigour a quarter of a century ago deserve a better valediction than this. It would be wise for Welsh to release them, and us, from our now far-from-exuberant miseries.