Book Review: Trainspotting
We’ve all seen Trainspotting the film. We all know Ewan McGregor running through Edinburgh, Iggy Pop blaring over the soundtrack, McGregor telling us to choose life, choose this, choose that. It’s a good film, no one can deny it. But beneath it lies something else something completely different. The book Trainspotting is another animal altogether, one much more sinister. There’s nothing Hollywood about it; there’s not even much cliché Edinburgh about it. It takes us to the darker side of Edinburgh, the side most of us, (myself included), have not seen. And it’s a scary place.
The copy of the book I read already carries heavy weight to it for me personally. It was gifted to me by someone who, sadly, is no longer with us. He was a Scot himself, true and proud, and if not for him and his family I probably wouldn’t understand the book. Most people I talk to about Trainspotting haven’t been able to finish it because it’s written colloquially. This can be taken a million different ways to mean a million different things, but I think beneath the images, beneath the metaphors, similes, and everything else, I think it’s just honest. Irvine Welsh is a Scot, he’s writing about Scotland, why should he do it in anything other than a Scottish dialect? The dialect he writes in isn’t pretty, but neither is the Scotland he presents to us.
We all know Edinburgh; the festival, the castle, the Royal Mile, Waverley station. These all appear in the novel (except maybe the castle, I’ll have to go back and double check), but they’re not presented as the beautiful landmarks they in reality are. In the novel, they’re vehicles for the characters’ sins. Royal Mile is full of tourists the gang (for want of a better collective noun) despise, the festival brings marks for the gang to rob, shag and beat, depending on the mood they’re in. They see Scotland as their own, after all they are Scottish so they’re not incorrect, and they try and keep it that way.
The novel pulls no punches; the racist, sexist, homophobic dialogue, the word ‘cunt’ thrown around as part of the standard conversation. It’s not pretty, but it’s not meant to be. It’s difficult to read, but it wouldn’t work otherwise. This is a book about drug takers and drug addicts. If it was easy to read it would be betraying itself. There’s nothing glamorous here.
The narrative itself is diffuse; it’s hard to follow. You find yourself reading several pages inside someone’s head before even finding out who that someone is. Mark Renton is our main vehicle, the closest thing to the main character of the novel, but we get enough forays into other characters’ minds that you can never quite be sure whose thoughts you’re reading. This adds to the confusing uncertainty that underpins the whole novel. Nothing is ever quite sure. We can assume events are relayed 100% faithfully, but it is only an assumption. Like reading Bret Easton Ellis, we cannot fully trust our narrator(s).
And even if we can trust their words, their actions make them untrustworthy. They’re criminals, pure and simple, so even if they are telling the truth, the truth is reprehensible.
But even if they are criminals, they’re likeable ones. I feel sorry for Second Prize, struggling with alcoholism after a failed career in football (or failing his career in football due to his struggle with alcoholism, a quandary Renton presents us with that even he doesn’t understand). I feel for Spud, a classic follower. He’s not clever enough to run his own life, and those he’s chose to follow are not good for him. I even feel sorry for Renton; he’s clearly a smart man. During the times he’s not using heroin in the novel he’s coherent, he makes good points, he’s borderline existential, but this is also his downfall. He suffers from a kind of existential depression, not being able to see the joy, or even point, in most things, and heroin is his escape. Is he a product of the world around him, or is the world around him a product of him? Whilst it’s impossible to tell, I veer towards the latter.
It’s a meandering work, brilliant in its portrayal of a world we’re all curious about, but many avoid. It is hard to read, the Scottish dialect is challenging, the events painful and often disgusting, the language coarse and offensive, but it’s an honest novel. It doesn’t present drug use as cotton-wrapped, candy-flossed, this-is-a-bad-time-but-things-will-be-okay scenario. The novel is gritty in the way it shows us the world that exists around us, that we may not be aware of. The novel is brutal, but it’s a necessary brutality. This is the second time I’ve read it, and it definitely will not be the last.