Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting has recently been re-released by Vintage in a double pack with Oliver Twist, compounded under the loose banner of ‘youth novels’. Certainly, both novels detail the exploits of various groups of young people and their correspondence to, and victimization by, society’s ills. However, Welsh’s seminal debut and Dickens’ Bildungsroman classic share little more common ground than the fact that they’re both works of genius (though the thought of Oliver Twist shagging his dead brother’s pregnant wife during a somber wake must have passed Dickens’ mind at some point).
The initial thing to be noticed whilst reading Trainspotting is that it’s not in any particularly familiar form of English, but rather native Scottish dialect: a combination of words that must be either spoken aloud or pondered for some time. Daunting at first, it soon becomes second nature and serves as a highly effective literary technique in which to develop some memorable characters.
Primarily, the novel is narrated by Renton (portrayed by a young Ewan McGregor in the 1996 film adaptation). A former literature student of Aberdeen University, Renton’s drug habits see him cop the title ‘junkie’ both from the myriad of aggressive people encountered throughout the book and from his own acquaintances; one of whom, Begbie, is an alcoholic psychopath secretly disliked by his group. The casualty list of hurricane Begbie is high; ranging from his pregnant girlfriend, an assortment of bar attendees and staff, and anybody with the indecency to look him in the eye. However, the HIV casualty rate is similarly high, with the demise of the formerly athletic Tommy one of the book’s saddest developments. Naturally, any novel exploring explicit heroin use bound to be targeted by do-gooders intent on censoring anything that resembles unchristian immorality, and Trainspotting certainly has, but Welsh is objective in his depiction of smack use. Sure, the high is ‘a thousand times better than any orgasm you’ve ever had’, but the criminality, depression, bleakness, anger, relapses, illnesses and death outweigh any glorification.
Characters come and go (as do references to Bowie, the Smiths, Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground), but, oddly for a book so enthralling, no primary plot underpins the story. Written from chapters that oscillate between first and third person narrative; between male and female narrators; between stream of consciousness and story retell; Trainspotting bridges the near-impossible divide between effective literary experimentation and quality content. And it might just even be better than Oliver Twist.