Wednesday, February 29, 2012

VLS (Village Voice Literary Supplement), September 1998

by Simon Reynolds

Irvine Welsh is shaking his skinny ass, gliding across the floor of a cramped recording studio in South London, an impish grin on his face. He's dancing to his own work-in-progress, a disco track he's made with buddy Kris Needs (a veteran English gonzo music journalist) for an album soon to be released via Creation Records, the label most famous for giving the world Oasis.

Although Welsh pens the lyrics, his musical role in the project seems limited to power of veto and vision-maintenance: right now, he's worried that his partner will smother the'70s disco vibe by bringing in too much of a '90s hard techno edge. "Keep it cheesy, Kris," Welsh admonishes. Needs responds by sampling an orgasmic moan from an obscure gay house-music track, "Mr Policeman," and looping it into the pumping groove.

The scenario of "Mr Policeman"--a cop getting a blowjob--weirdly parallels the most repellent scene in Welsh's new novel Filth (W.W. Norton, 393 pp., $14 paper), which is something like a cross between Bad Lieutenant and Prime Suspect. The book's antihero, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, extorts fellatio from an angelic underage girl after discovering a cache of Ecstasy pills in her bag. Climaxing, Robertson breaks wind: "I'm farting oot loads ay gas, it's burning my eyes. The power of that Lauriston Place Curry Hoose's vindaloo! . . . She's choking, but I haud her heid steady until I'm ready, then I withdraw my cock from her miserable torn face, stuff it in my troosers, zip up and leave her to her tears. . . . I go through the lobby leaving the wee slut to soak up that distinctive curry, Guinness and [semen] atmosphere."

Filth is a novel that starts with a fart, ends with a bowel evacuation, and whose only moral voice emanates from the tapeworm lurking inside Robertson's colon. But then Welsh's fiction has never been polite or pretty. He's peopled all of his books--Trainspotting, The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance--with characters too unsavory for the sedate drawing room of English literary fiction: junkies, soccer hooligans, Ecstasy-abusing ravers, petty criminals, and other species of British lowlife spawned during the Thatcher-Major government's 18-year-long project of systematically transforming a united, unionized working class into an auto-destructive lumpen proletariat.

Although Welsh has received recognition from the transatlantic literary establishment, he relishes the role of enfant terrible (albeit a babyfaced 40-year-old enfant). Good reviews don't matter to him because his first book, Trainspotting, found a fiercely loyal readership largely through word of mouth. Research by his publishers has shown that a hefty proportion of Welsh's audience doesn't read any fiction at all, apart from books by himself and kindred spirits like Morvern Callar author Alan Warner. Welsh regards these post literati as more competent readers than professional critics, because they have first-hand experience of the subcultural realms he documents: drug-and-dance culture, crime, the black economy, welfare subsistence. He now admits that his last book Ecstasy was deeply flawed, because so many of these ordinary "punters" came up "and told me, 'That was total shite, man.' " Welsh smiles, seemingly relishing this blunt feedback.

Instant success, money, and the translation of his works into other media have made Welsh supremely indifferent to his critical reception. But his hostility toward the London literary world still burns ardently. "You get all these fucking hypocrites in the literary establishment saying, 'Oh, we must get more people reading. . . .' As soon as someone like myself comes along and actually gets people reading books, they turn all sneery. What they mean is they want a market for the books they think people should read."

For a long time, "the enemy"--middle class, Oxbridge educated--was incarnated in the form of Martin Amis. Superficially, Amis and Welsh seem to have much in common: a sharp eye and nose for the textures of squalor, a menagerie of spiritually bankrupt protagonists, an obsession with the myriad shades of the English slanguage. But there's a crucial difference. From Amis's detached vantage point of privilege, the British class system and its attendant grotesqueries merely afford frightful amusement. If you're writing from somewhere closer to the bottom of the social heap, though, the stakes are higher, the reality of wasted potential and distorted lives all too raw and personal.

Welsh grew up in an Edinburgh housing scheme, the equivalent of the projects. At school, the notion of writing as vocation was unthinkable: "Back then, the idea of someone being a writer, you'd think of graffiti spray-painted on the walls," he notes wryly. Welsh's artistic impulses gravitated toward music; for several years he messed around in postpunk bands in Edinburgh and London, flitting between "crap jobs and the dole" and getting "fucked up with drugs, specifically heroin and speed." In the late '80s he swung to the other extreme, straightening himself out and getting on a career track: he worked in local government, took a degree in business management, began to set up a consultancy firm, even dabbled in real estate speculation.

But then the UK's rave explosion--triggered by acid house music and Ecstasy--began to lure him from the straight-and-narrow. Gradually, he got swept up in the mass bohemia of the dance-and-drug culture. And he started writing stories, partly to alleviate the tedium of an office job, but also to cope with the comedown phase after the frenzied high of the weekend. "It's good to write on a drug comedown," he says. "You almost reach that transcendental place where you've got away from how fucking bad you feel. For me, writing was a way of trying to keep the rave vibe and the experience going a bit into the working week."

Although the euphoric utopianism of the early days of rave has deeply affected him, Welsh's stories never conceal the motor behind the incandescent vitality of working-class leisure: desperation. To borrow the title of perhaps his most autobiographical story, Welsh is "A Smart Cunt"--a working-class autodidact too clever not to see through the safety valves (booze, football fanaticism, loveless sex, drugs) and inverted snobberies that hold the working class together in dismal complicity with their own oppression, yet perversely loyal to his social and regional roots. Although Welsh now lives in London with his wife, the Edinburgh underclass dialect will always be his truest literary voice; he still keeps an apartment in his home town.

In person, Welsh has a thick Scottish accent but he rarely resorts to the pungent slang that peppers his books; he comes off as unpretentiously erudite. Early publicity photos played up his barbarian-at-the-gates-of-literature outsider chic, making Welsh look menacing, misshapen and faintly psychopathic. In the flesh, he's actually rather handsome; with his ageless, Tin Tin-like face bobbing atop a tall, willowy physique, he resembles a cherubic skinhead. Dressed in slip-on shoes, jeans, white baseball cap, and striped T-shirt with a pair of sunglasses clipped onto its neckline, Welsh looks the picture of relaxation--just a regular guy on vacation. Only the faded tattoo on his arm--not a trendy nouvelle one but a skull in a harlequin's cap--hints at his street-credible past.

"Filth" is British slang for police, but as a title it seems to acknowledge Welsh's place in the counter-canon of literary abjection. Céline seems an obvious reference point: there's the same first-person, fear-and-self-loathing p.o.v., the same coarse vernacular, the same compulsion to make language "throb rather than reason." Like Céline's Journey to The End of the Night, Filth is also a lacerating anatomy of masculine psychology, a dissection of paranoia, misogyny, and spite.

Instead of doing his detective job (the plot concerns a mysterious homicide that may be racially motivated), Robertson devotes most of his energy to what he calls "the games"--the artful engineering of humiliations and career setbacks for his friends and colleagues. His keenest pleasure is schadenfreude (perverse delight in others' misfortunes), but he can't wait for it to occur naturally--he ensures it happens. "Every cunt has their Achilles' heel, and I always make a point of remembering my associates' ones. Something that crushes their self-image to a pulp."

Robertson is such a powerful character, so queerly and corrosively charismatic, that as I plunged deeper into Filth, I found myself becoming a progressively nastier person: short-tempered, brusque on the phone, malevolent-minded. Which begs the question: if reading Filth is a corrupting experience, what can it have been like to write it?

"It was horrible," laughs Welsh. "I was pretty difficult to be around when I was writing the novel. And what was really weird was, I had this big sty come out around my eyelid. I couldn't get rid of it, I tried for a year, all different creams, but it kept getting bigger. It might have been something as simple as repetitive eye strain from banging away on the VDU. But I do think it was psychosomatic, all the horrible stuff coming out, 'cos as soon as I typed the end, it just went. . . . But y'know, there's actually a perverse delight in writing about somebody you hate. You hate his racism, his sexism, even his music taste, everything about him. But when you dive into that kind of cesspool, it's quite creepy, because you do get into it. You have to, to make it believable."

Softspoken, subdued, a real gentle man--it's hard to imagine Welsh accessing the kind of monstrous psychic muck that fuels Robertson's careening trajectory through the novel. A prime inspiration for the character came from a nightwatchman Welsh once worked with. "He'd have these really dodgy, beaten-down, broken-up women come and visit him. And he was just unremittingly misogynistic. But when you're with someone like that for eight hours on a late shift, you do get pulled into the awfulness of his world."

Robertson is a creature of compulsions and cravings, vainly trying to staunch the insatiable void within. A typical day consists of any or all of the following: endless snacks on fat-saturated sausage rolls and bacon butties; starting an evil rumor about a fellow employee by daubing graffiti on the toilet wall; fiddling his overtime forms; making an obscene phone call to his best friend's wife, as part of a long-term scheme to ruin said best friend's life; enjoying an adulterous liaison, possibly involving erotic auto-asphyxiation; clawing the itchy rash on his buttocks and thighs until blood is drawn; getting drunk at the Masonic lodge; taking a cab home (remembering always to pay the driver the exact fare, no tip, and to savor the disappointment on his face), then passing out while ogling a porn video.

Although Robertson is constantly numbing himself or hyperstimulating himself, and halfway through the narrative develops a coke habit, Filth is less concerned with drug culture than any of Welsh's previous books. There is a sense, though, that Robertson's soul is pure cocaine--insofar as that drug makes every vice attractive and stimulates every appetite (except hunger). "Cocaine is the ultimate consumer capitalist drug," nods Welsh. "And Robertson's got that ideology of pure consumption. You can see that in the worm as well," he adds, referring to the tapeworm whose thoughts interrupt the text, and which evolve from blind id-like voracity ("eat eat") to super ego-like meditations on the psychological damage that made Robertson into the walking catastrophe that he is.

The drugs featured in Welsh's previous books--heroin in Trainspotting, Ecstasy in The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares--all retain some aura of Romantic utopianism. These chemicals are sacraments of dissident subcultures, surrogates for thwarted dreams of social transformation. If these drugs can't change the world, they can at least change the way some individuals walk through the world: In Marabou, a soccer thug for whom "swedgin' " (hand-to-hand combat) is "my dancing" is transformed into a New Man thanks to the ego-melting power of Ecstasy and rave music. But Robertson and his coke-fiend detective partner Lennox don't want to get in touch with their inner child. Lennox tells an Ecstasy dealer that he never takes pills: "Tried them once, but they didnae go wi the job. Made me feel too good aboot everybody. Nae use in my game."

Filth's shift to cocaine--a drug that gives the user the illusion of control--parallels a departure in Welsh's writing. In the past, he's dealt with the dispossessed and disenfranchised; now, for the first time, he's exploring the psychology of power and privilege. Robertson is a class traitor: he grew up in a coal mining community, but joined the police around the time of the doomed miners' strike of 1984 because he wanted to join the power rather than fight it. Robertson lovingly recalls wielding his truncheon against union pickets and is eager to participate in a raid on a commune of anarcho-hippy ravers.

Robertson is the anti-raver: someone who (initially, at least) thrives on his own self-alienation and who regards techno music as a threat to the British way of life. Instead, he listens to heavy metal. Some of the funniest passages in Filth involve Robertson's earnest musings about the metal canon and the relative merits of specific albums by Deep Purple and Saxon--a subject Welsh seems suspiciously well informed about, although he claims he gleaned it all from a metal maniac friend. "I think I'll refuse to sell the film rights to Filth, 'cos I'd hate the fucking album that'd be made out of it!" he guffaws, nearly choking on what passes for bruschetta in England. "The soundtrack would fucking kill me!"

Although dance music and Ecstasy figure only on the periphery of Filth, Welsh continually alludes to rave culture as an analogy for what he does stylistically. He talks of trying to engage the attention-depleted, overstimulated sensorium of the postliterate generation, kids who've grown up on an entire spectrum of "rush culture" which bypasses meaning and instead works through sonic, visual, and tactile sensation.

"Special effects blockbuster films, or theme parks with bigger rides, they're all really rush-fix, adrenaline-buzz oriented. These strong psychoactive buzzy things, whether it's computer games or drugs, are all part of this pure escapist culture--people trying to outrun the nastiness in society, the disequilibrium in people's lives today." Welsh says that these days he's more enthused about writing for television or the silver screen (a movie version of The Acid House is due out early in 1999), and eagerly anticipates the outmoding of the traditional novel by the interactive book: CD-ROM novels that interface with sound and visuals, and offer readers multiple plot options. "The idea of the Book isn't that appealing to me right now," he shrugs. "I'm getting to that state where I think I've said everything in that format."

As part of his determination to catch up with the aural and optical intensities of music and film, Welsh has been experimenting with literary form for some time: breaking up the text in a manner akin to split-screen cinema for some of the Acid House stories; deploying different typefaces and multiple tiers of narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares; superimposing the tapeworm's monologue over the main text in Filth. "For me, the process of the book is as important as the content--the process of how people engage with it. It goes back to rave music. Because of drugs and music, but also because of advertising and soundbites, people want to be engaged. Something's got to happen on every page in books. So when you get all these critics moaning about the death of the novel, the only reason is 'cos nothing's happening there. There's no point in describing what it's like watching the sun come up. What people want is almost like a steady beat to the writing. For me the device that works is using the dialect, both in narrative and dialogue, 'cos it's a very rhythmic, performative type of language," he says, comparing his use of it to the pulsating drive and flow-motion aesthetic of a great DJ.

Yet for all his scabrous subject matter and formal experiments, the pleasures of a Welsh novel are in some ways quite traditional--great characters, ring-of-truth dialogue, gripping plots, psychological insight, even moral weight (albeit voiced by a worm in the butt). He might loudly disdain traditional literary virtues as effete, enervated, and irrelevant, he might seek to align himself with more commercially viable sectors of pop culture, but in truth, Welsh's writing operates on a higher plane than the cheap thrills of Godzilla or Mortal Kombat. Discussing the British boom in clubbing-and-drugging fiction that he almost singlehandedly catalyzed, Welsh comes close to acknowledging this. "I don't think you can think of yourself as a 'rave writer,' " he says, wincing at the cliché often applied to him. "If you haven't got characterization and storyline, it doesn't matter what culture you come from or how clued up you are."

And then, as if to prove he really is the "rave author" after all, Welsh slips out of his seat and is dancing again to the pounding beat of his own record--shimmying with rubber-limbed fluency, giving me a thumbs-up sign and cheeky grin.

Artforum, Summer, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

In Britain, pop culture and drug culture are almost synonymous these days. From Oasis' anthems of coked-out glory-lust to Pulp's number-one hit "Sorted for E's and Wizz" (a brilliantly ambivalent evocation of the dream and lie of rave), from the ganja-delic paranoia of Tricky to jungle's journeys into the dark side of Ecstasy culture, British pop is all highs and lows, uppers and downers. Other sectors of the culture industry lag behind music in reflecting what every British kid takes for granted: the sheer omnipresence and banality of recreational drug use. Which is why Irvine Welsh, chronicler of the "chemical generation," has become such a cult figure, and why the movie of his 1993 debut novel Trainspotting has become such a sensation in England, a sort of UK counterpart to Kids.

A big source of Welsh's appeal is the shock of encountering a writer who deals with British drug culture in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, while never concealing either its physical and psychic costs or the desperation that fuels it. The backdrop to his tales of lumpen-prole life in the deprived "housing schemes" of Edinburgh is postindustrial unemployment and the humiliation of a socialist Scotland within a Tory-ruled UK. He seldom confronts this political deadlock explicitly, but when he does, his anatomy of curdled idealism and hope is unsparing. In the novella A Smart Cunt (part of the story collection The Acid House, published in England in 1994), a left-wing militant tries to recruit Brian (Welsh's most autobiographical protagonist). "I'm thinking, what can I do, really do for the emancipation of working people in this country, shat on by the rich, tied into political inaction by servile reliance on a reactionary, moribund and yet still unelectable Labour Party?," muses Brian. "The answer is a resounding fuck all. Getting up early to sell a couple of [political pamphlets] in a shopping centre is not my idea of the best way to chill out.... I think I'll stick to drugs to get me through the long, dark night of late capitalism."

In Welsh's world, even nonravers are on drugs, literally (state-sanctioned chemicals like alcohol or tranquilizers) or metaphorically (TV, videos, computer games, the adrenaline rush of football violence). But Welsh - an ex-junkie and still a fervent raver - is mostly preoccupied with illegal forms of raising and razing consciousness. The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, published in England in 1995, and the forthcoming Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances largely concern the rave scene's drugs of choice: MDMA, LSD, and "jellies" (slang for the downer Temazepam). And Trainspotting focuses on Edinburgh's heroin subculture of the mid '80s, when Pakistani smack had glutted the UK market, becoming, for thousands of ordinary people mired in unemployment, a cheaper means to oblivion than alcohol.

Welsh captures this moment by contrasting the "honest" junkies Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy with their mate Begbie, a sociopath who boasts that he "wouldnae poison ma body with that shite" while consuming gallons of booze, smoking like a chimney, and finding his own twisted form of release in gratuitous violence. But Welsh's junkies aren't just renegades from the "hard man" mentality Begbie represents; they're also in revolt against Scotland's "work hard, play hard" regime. Welsh describes the smackhead as a "closet romantic," someone who refuses to accept life's limitations.

It is from this one among many of Welsh's stray insights that director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge (the team responsible for the 1994 film Shallow Grave) launch their movie. Putting a mischievous spin on the slogan "just say no," their version of Trainspotting fanfares heroin as a romantic renunciation of mediocrity. In a monologue superimposed over an exhilarating chase scene after a bungled shoplifting, Renton (Ewan McGregor) sarcastically itemizes the meaningless options available to the good citizen. "Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth.... Choose your future. Choose life." Then the punch line: "Well, I chose not to choose life.... And the reasons? Who needs reasons when you've got heroin."

This is up-front stuff, and before you've caught your breath, Boyle cuts to perhaps the most true-to-Welsh aspect of the movie: a paean to self-poisoning. "People think heroin is all about death and misery and despair.... What they forget is the pleasure of it.... After all, we're not fucking stupid." The scene is the glamorously squalid council flat (the grot and grunge have a glossy, hyperreal feel) where Renton and his pals cook up and inject. The camera clings to their pasty faces, screwed up in need and anticipation, relief and rapture. Allison (Susan Vidler), a single mother (her baby crawls happily among filth and comatose bodies), is shot up by Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) in a parody of sexual penetration; as her face spasms with the rush, she gasps, "That's better than any meat injection, better than any fucking cock in the world." Renton's voice-over attempts to quantify the experience: "Take your best orgasm and multiply it by a thousand." (This is inflation: in the book, it's only by twenty.)

Predictably, Trainspotting has been accused of glamorizing drugs, and indeed the film is riveting in precise ratio to the extent that it glosses over the tawdry torpor of the druggie lifestyle. Welsh's writing gets round the banality of drug use, and the dreariness of the environment that the junkies seek to "obliviate," by the vividness of his dialogue - rich with slang and expletives, and mostly in dialect. Toning down the verbals (Welsh-speak is hard for non-Scots), Boyle vibes up the visuals. This and his film's sheer pace conspire to make its wasters and psychos appear dynamic and charismatic, people you'd love to hang out with.

Speaking to Premiere magazine, Boyle was surprisingly candid about the liberties he took. Researching the movie, he "met a lot of real junkies. That was really, really depressing. Suddenly there didn't seem any real energy to build the film on other than the book. When you meet the real things it's like all the life has been taken away and there's nothing left but victims.... It's a debilitating experience rather than something that gives energy and life." In the novel, Renton is plain, zit-plagued, and unhealthy; as played by McGregor, he's dead sexy. And though Boyle knew that "real junkies ... [are] quite chubby," he made McGregor shed 28 pounds in order to achieve "the stick thin, artificial version ... that is the conceived idea of a heroin addict."

The fakeness of Trainspotting is both what's problematic and what's most engaging about it. Breaking with the gritty, quasi-documentary feel we've come to expect from British cinema (Ken Loach, Mike Leigh), Boyle opts instead for a kind of social surrealism. Struggling to kick, Renton procures some opium suppositories to ease his withdrawal pangs. (The dodgy-dealer cameo is played by Welsh himself.) But his habit has caused chronic constipation, which, minus heroin, wears off, and he's forced to relieve himself in a filthy public toilet. Realizing too late that he's also voided his precious narcotic orbs, Renton plunges his arms into the blocked toilet, then literally dives down the bowl. Suddenly he's swimming through a beatific subaquascape to the soothing Mantovaniesque strains of Brian Eno's "Deep Blue Day," and triumphantly scooping his lost gems from the rocky seabed.This amniotic vision was probably inspired by a passage in the book that imagines heroin as an "internal sea," the only trouble being that "this beautiful ocean carries with it loads ay poisonous flotsam and jetsam ... once the ocean rolls out, it leaves the shite behind, inside ma body."

Elsewhere, though, Trainspotting's visual brio subverts the book's meaning. Having successfully kicked, Renton confronts the real challenge - coping with the dreariness of unaltered consciousness. Keeping him on a close leash, his parents take him to the pub. But Boyle and Hodge deal with this supposed tedium by speeding up the film, so that the pub's middle-aged bingo players whizz around the inert Renton; the filmmakers can't even let boredom be boring.

Departing from the book in the film's last segment, Boyle and Hodge give us a brief vignette of a London rave that hints that the heroin scene of a few years earlier was but a prequel to Ecstasy culture. This interlude seems like a nod to Welsh's reputation as the "rave author"; indeed its paean to a new, Ecstasy-sponsored spirit of androgyny was probably inspired by Marabou Stork Nightmares. Another aspect of rave - its surrogate sense of community and belonging as a reaction against Tory-imposed social fragmentation - isn't spelled out, but can be read against another key sequence (also absent from the book) that shows Renton thriving as a London real estate agent at the height of the quick-killing economic boom of the late '80s. Describing his pleasure in scamming clients with dodgy apartment conversions, Renton paraphrases one of Margaret Thatcher's most infamous proclamations: "There's no such thing as society."

Renton's buddies, too, have come up with their own nefarious take on "enterprise culture": Sick Boy is a pimp and a pusher, Begbie's done an armed robbery. Thatcher's illegitimate children, they embroil Renton in a massive heroin deal. Taking self-help and initiative one step further, Renton rips off his homeboys and absconds with the loot. The movie ends as he strides into a bright tomorrow, the camera close-up on his maniacally grinning face as he recites a mantra of affirmation: "I'm cleaning up and moving on, going straight and choosing life," followed by an incantatory list of all the things ("indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by") that he'd earlier repudiated.

Welsh's book, though, ends on a more ambivalent, tentative note. Renton screws over his mates precisely in order to burn his boats; he can never return to Edinburgh for fear of Begbie's retribution. "There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be."

Still, both book and film share a blind spot on the creepy subtext of Renton's escape. Not only has he broken the blood-brother ties of his surrogate clan, he has paid for his one-way ticket out of the proletariat with the proceeds of a heroin deal, thereby further enmiring thousands of his erstwhile fellow addicts. Both these betrayals reinforce the proposition that "there is no such thing as society." In the absence of any hope of collective amelioration, the only way out is class defection. For those who remain behind, drugs - taking them, selling them - is all that's left in "the long dark night of late capitalism."