Rated ahead of Midnight’s Children, Catch 22, and To Kill a Mockingbird, among others, on Waterstone’s ’100 Best Books of the Century’ list, Trainspotting has become so acclaimed that Irvine Welsh has resigned himself to being known as ‘that Trainspotting author guy’ for the rest of his life. Considering the kind of royalty dosh he’s pulling down for it, there are worse things to be, I suppose.
The book takes its title from the (mainly) British hobby, which is pretty much self-explanatory. Trainspotting, however, has another much more relevant meaning. Heroin addiction is a central theme here, and a session of shooting up will leave a dark linear mark – called a track – in the chosen vein. Seasoned users will have multiple ‘tracks’ and will hence choose a ‘spot’ on an optimum vein (one with the least ‘tracks’) to inject through, being less painful. The Urban Dictionary helpfully adds that the impact of injecting heroin is akin to being hit by a locomotive. Personally, I think the title is a combination of the two meanings, as both heroin addiction and actual trainspotting are generally contemptuously dismissed as the worthless, wretched, and pointless pursuits of the socially marginalized.
The book follows the stories of four young addicts in Leith, a suburb of Edinburgh. Three of them – Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy – are heroin addicts, while the fourth, Begbie, is a fully blown seasoned psychopath, addicted to violence, the kind that kicks a pregnant girlfriend in the stomach for asking him where he’s going, and musing later in the pub, “that cunts deid if she’s made us hurt that f***ing bairn.”
Written in the Scottish vernacular, with occasional chapters in third person normal English, Trainspotting does a masterful job of getting under the skin and into the minds of the characters, especially the loathsome Begbie and the easygoing Spud. Renton, the primary protagonist/narrator, wavers between being a typical intelligent young urban hippie with a love for spontaneous pontification and a self-loathing junkie who lets his habit ruin his friendships and gradually his life. And Sick Boy is just that, a guy who gets off on shooting pit-bulls in the groin and watching them attack their owners in deadly agony. Like Renton, he too has a strong penchant for pretentiousness, and like Begbie, relishes violence, but is far more hypocritical about it. They’re friends more out of habit than anything else; Renton dislikes Sick Boy and loathes Begbie, but is terrified of standing up to him and being subjected to “the discipline aw the basebaw bat.” Only Spud and Renton share a genuine friendship, but Spud, unlike Renton, doesn’t sneer at the faults in his other friends, and is willing to go along with them with equanimity, stopping short of actual physical violence or sadism, which he opposes. Spud is the only one who is genuinely honest and compassionate, but has no qualms about stealing to fuel his junk habit. Other important characters are Diane (Renton’s under-age one night stand), Tommy and Lizzie (the good looking but potentially self-destructive guy and the domineering ‘every-man’s-fantasy’ girl), Stevie (the normal one totally disconnected from his childhood friends), and Kelly (the industrious girl who works two jobs to put herself through college).
Trainspotting, like Ulysses, is a literary odyssey. It’s written in a fragmented, unstructured style, switching between first-person stream of consciousness to third-person omniscient from chapter to chapter. Internal conversations in the first person (sometimes with another person) are common, as is the reiterative use of phonetic dialogue. It takes some accustomization, but once you become familiar with the rhythm and cadences of the Edinburgh Scottish accent, it gives the reader a whole new level of immersive depth in a frequently disquieting reading experience. Extreme violence, obscenely graphic and nausea inducing descriptions of hard-core drug addiction and withdrawal, obsession and rebellion, various forms of crime ranging from petty theft to seriously grievous bodily harm; Welsh pulls no punches in this often disturbingly shocking and grotesque narrative. Among the more disturbing and disgusting sequences involve junkies fishing in used toilets for anal suppositories, sex with your dead brother’s wife at his funeral, deliberately infecting people with H.I.V…well, you get the general picture, and it ain’t a pretty one. But it’s more than just a cringe-inducing shock-novel. The whole book is underpinned with motives that will resonate with the angry, socially alienated youth the world over – the important yet destructive nature of friendship, targeted racism, drug abuse, despair predicated on violence, the impersonal and deliberately detached nature of the so-called ‘compassionate society’, and above all, a searing indictment of the allegedly classless society of post 90′s Scotland. The tragedy of the stories are obvious, but it is up to the reader to interpret them.
The only portion of the book that felt contrived is the heist sequence and subsequent betrayal of friendship that forms the conclusion of the book. It’s almost as if Welsh was told by his editors that some sort of excitingly redemptive ending was necessary to round it out and setup the sequel (Porno). Incidentally, at the Jaipur literature festival in 2011 Welsh read from the prequel* to Trainspotting, which will revolve around the adolescence of the four major protagonists and is due for publication later this year.
Sometimes cruel, rarely but surprisingly compassionate, laced with viciously dark humour and frighteningly visceral, Trainspotting is often held up as the best grim comedy on drug addiction there is, and with good reason. While Robert O’Connor’s Buffalo Soldiers is another good example of this genre, Trainspotting, more than any other, will change you, whether you know it or not, whether you’ve experimented with or been addicted to drugs or not.
* The sequence he read involved Renton’s, erm, onanistic assistance of his autistic and disabled brother with his television-induced tumescence. It was graphic, to put it mildly. You can imagine the expressions on the faces of the middle-aged people who were listening.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org