Author: Irvine Welsh
Original Publication: 1993
#134 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
In most cases, I doubt I would recommend seeing the movie adaptation of a book before reading the book itself. In the case of Trainspotting, I was glad I had seen the 1996 film, because I was better able to visualize the characters and discern what was happening. In this case, the movie and book are good companions. Set in the late 1980’s during the rise of AIDS, the novel follows a group of friends, most of whom are heroin addicts, and all of whom are destructive in one form or another. The novel is unique in that it is narrated in vignettes by each character, in their distinct voices. One thing I wish I had discovered before I was nearly finished with the novel is that there is a glossary in the back, which may be helpful to readers who aren’t familiar with Scottish slang (the novel is written entirely in varying thickness of brogue.)
The story begins with Mark Renton, the main character, getting dope sick and trying to score some heroin. We follow Renton and his friends through pubs, fights, death, prison, AIDS, and any number of drug-related adventures as they all try to kick their habits, with varying degrees of success. For some of them, it will be too late; for others, impossible. For all of them, the damage has been done. For those who have seen the movie, the infamous “ceiling baby” and “worst toilet in Scotland” scenes come instantly to mind. Not only do the scenes appear in the novel, the novel also goes places that the movie didn’t dare; to give one an idea of the intensity of the story. Drug addiction and the addict lifestyle are ugly, and Welsh does not shy away from graphic details.
I initially had a little trouble following who was speaking in each narrative, although it becomes more clear as one reads on. The Wikipedia Entry on Trainspotting gives away who is speaking for each narrative if it’s important to you to know for sure. I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary (nor does it detract from the story not to know, since all of the characters are interrelated), although this is certainly a read that can be enhanced by companion literature. I haven’t discussed the plot here as this is one you really need to read in order to understand – Welsh isn’t so much telling a story with Trainspotting as he is instilling a feeling inside the reader. It isn’t always a pleasant sensation, but it is effectively, cringingly done.
Fun Fact: Welsh penned a far less popular sequel, “Porno”, in 2002. Described by critics as “wholly unnecessary”, it takes place ten years after the original novel, and features the same characters. A prequel, “Skagboys”, is due out in 2012.
Bother if: I liked this one, even if it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around at first because of the odd language and shifting narrative. Having read this on the heels of Naked Lunch, I thought that for a novel which is essentially a stream of consciousness about drug abuse and its consequences, this one was relatively easier to follow and much more enjoyable. Certain parts struck me as extremely funny, and much of it was quite intelligent. It called to mind kind of a “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” for a more cynical punk generation. I also enjoyed all of the references to music they were listening to and how music was worked into the story – Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie being a few examples. The story ends with the reader feeling that there might yet be hope for Renton. Where Welsh really shines as a writer is that despite the fact that every single character is either a junkie, a criminal, an asshole, or some combination of the three, you can’t help but sort of like most of them.
Don’t Bother if: It’s not for everyone. As mentioned, there’s a shifting narrative and odd language, but it’s also very graphic in its depictions of the physical, mental, and societal consequences of drug abuse. It also contains sex, foul language, drug abuse (obviously), animal cruelty, described child rape and murder, crime, and a particularly disgusting scene where a waitress befouls someone’s food. I enjoyed it, despite being the last person who has any sympathy for junkies, but I was hard-pressed to think of very many friends to whom I would recommend it.