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Irvine Welsh Biography

trainspotting novel scottish london

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1958. Education: Heriot-Watt University, M.B.A. Career: Worked at various jobs, including television repairman, musician, and software consultant; writer, 1993—. Agent: c/o Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Trainspotting. London, Secker & Warburg, 1993; New York, Norton, 1996.

Marabou Stork Nightmares: A Novel. London, J. Cape, 1995; NewYork, Norton, 1996.

Filth: A Novel. New York, Norton, 1998.

Short Stories

The Acid House. London, J. Cape; New York, Norton, 1995.

Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances. New York, Norton, 1996.

Plays

Screenplays:

The Acid House: A Screen Play. London, MethuenFilm, 1999.

Other

The Wedding: New Pictures from the Continuing "Living Room" Series (text), photographs by Nick Waplington. New York, Aperture, 1996.

You'll Have Had Your Hole. London, Methuen Film, 1998.

Contributor, Intoxication: An Anthology of Stimulant-Based Writing.New York, Serpent's Tail, 1998.

* * *

In terms of its influence, Irvine Welsh's phenomenally successful first novel, Trainspotting, can be compared to Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children. Just as Rushdie's novel enlivened the somewhat insular, even moribund "English novel" by introducing a higher degree of postcolonial consciousness and postmodern play, Trainspotting has vastly expanded the nature and visibility of British fiction in general and Scottish fiction in particular. Originally issued by a small Edinburgh publisher in 1993, Trainspotting resonated with readers, and its reputation spread by word-of-mouth, largely in the British youth culture. The novel was soon reissued by a major London publisher and nominated for the Booker Prize. The acclaim, and notoriety, along with that of James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late (winner of the 1994 Booker Prize), focused attention on the renaissance in Scottish writing that included established writers such as Kelman and Alisdair Gray, younger, consummate stylists Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, and Candia McWilliam, and the rougher crowd of Alan Warner, Duncan McLean, Laura Hird, and Welsh. Following the success of Trainspotting (Welsh's novel as well as adaptations by Danny Boyle's film and Harry Gibson for stage), anthologies of Scottish and youth-based fiction flooded a literary market that expanded to include rave clubs and the "chemical generation" for whom Welsh soon became unofficial poet laureate.

Against the excessive romanticizing of Scotland in the blockbuster films Rob Roy and Braveheart and the commercial success of the decidedly artsy, upscale Edinburgh Festival, Welsh offered a blackly humorous and stylistically energizing look at how the other half lives. For all its stylistic flair and cinematic structure, Trainspotting is in some ways a work in the naturalist tradition, both in its use of Edinburgh dialect and its preoccupation with social ills. These include, most obviously, heroin use and HIV infection as well as a dysfunctional social welfare system, a socially destructive capitalist ethos, a Scottish national character heavily dependent on drinking, violence, and sexual abuse of women, the lingering effects of English colonization, and most importantly, the demoralization and disaffiliation of Scottish youth.

The world of Trainspotting, the Edinburgh of Leith and Muirhouse, is a world without beliefs and without illusions, in which the phrase "choose life" has all the authenticity of a government-sponsored ad campaign. Although it has in style and subject a certain affinity to the heroin fictions of Alexander Trocchi and William S. Burroughs, Trainspotting is nonetheless a highly original work: unsparing and unsentimental on the one hand, stylistically brilliant on the other, not only in its at-times-fantastical depiction of "the life-taking elixir," "ma beautiful heroine's tender caresses," but in the compact, slangy brilliance of individual lines, such as "Lizzie is a shag extraordinaire, but has a temper like a sailor and a castrating stare." Although it slips rapidly and without warning in and out of various characters' first-person narratives, Trainspotting focuses on Mark Renton, who realizes that in a world in which carpe diem has been taken to the furthest extreme, both in the drug-subculture and in a Britain made in Margaret Thatcher's image, a world in which there are "Nae friends, in this game. Jist associates," the only escape lies in betrayal.

After Trainspotting, Welsh's two collections of short fiction were assured success, especially given their titles and suitably garish cover art. Although stylistically less interesting and innovative than Trainspotting, Acid House (21 stories and novella) extends the range of Welsh's examination of (some would say exploitation of) the social ills affecting Euro-youth. Ecstasy 's three hastily written novellas are weaker but interesting nonetheless, not for the violence and grossness with which Welsh is often criticized but for a surprising streak of sentimentality, carefully controlled in Marabou Stork Nightmares, all but overwhelming in Filth. Set in Scotland and Africa and dealing with various forms of exploitation (colonialism, racism, sexism, sexual abuse of women and children), Marabou Stork Nightmares is Welsh's most ambitious novel. The narrative literally—typographically—travels up into the hospitalized, semi-comatose narrator's semi-consciousness and at times down deeper into memory, dream, nightmare, and overdose-induced hallucination. The character of Roy Strang tries unsuccessfully to escape his past (including his part in a brutal gang-rape) via a third-rate adventure story involving stalking and exterminating Strang's symbol of "evil incarnate," the exceptionally ugly and preda tory Marabou stork, symbol too of Strang's self-loathing. The novel's complexity puts Welsh's efforts to explain if not quite excuse Roy's actions in perspective. The same cannot be said for Filth, which often reads like an episode of Prime Suspect as written by the makers of Friday the 13th under the influence of fellow Scottish writers Ian Rankin and Robert Louis Stevenson (Jekyll and Hyde). Bruce Robertson is a detective for whom abuse of power is a way of life—a frighteningly lonely life, it turns out. Unfortunately, Robertson's appalling isolation is all but overwhelmed by Welsh's crude approach (however deliberate some or all of it may be) and, once again, an equally appalling sentimentality when it comes to explaining (if not quite exonerating) Robertson's personality and behavior. Although the subject of much criticism for its cover—a pig wearing a constable's helmet—Filth—like the tapeworm-shaped passages that devour its host's narrative right on the page—tries too hard both to offend and explain. Whatever its aesthetic weaknesses, Filth evidences Welsh's willingness to address topics of concern to his mainly youthful audience in ways and forms sure to shock and even offend the general public: in his widely read novels and short stories; in the "blasphemous" film version of three Acid House stories (for which Welsh wrote the screenplay); in Headstate, a theater piece performed at rave clubs; and You'll Have Had Your Hole, a contemporary Jacobean revenge play set in an abandoned recording studio in Edinburgh.

—Robert Morace

Eudora (Alice) Welty Biography [next]

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