In the mid-to-late 80’s, Edinburgh was the heroin capital of the world. After all, it was cheap, impossibly addictive, and everywhere. The city was ravaged by drug culture and the violence, crime and debauched self-interest it spawned. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting grabs hold of us and plunges us into this world of degenerates, this black pit of despair. This is not so much in an attempt to provide answers or hope but rather to give an unflinching account of young people turning their backs on life.
Mark “Rents” Renton is a remorseless, quasi-philosophical junkie who takes drugs to escape an existence he sees as mundane and futile. He is caught in a vicious cycle of highs and lows, his only aspiration in life being to get his next hit. His parents, middle-class and generally respectable, are appalled at his drug abuse and are desperate to see him clean. But even when Renton genuinely attempts to give up the “skag”, he finds himself returning to the familiar emptiness of heroin every time.
The tragedy of the junkie is that they become prisoners of their own addiction. Renton is well aware of the havoc that the drug wreaks on his health, family and relationships but feels powerless to stop it, like a car crash happening in slow motion. But then, Renton argues, aren’t we all junkies? The book makes no bones about calling society out on its hypocritical acceptance of other addictions like alcohol, prescription medication and, of course, football. Everyone needs something to keep them going, even if we’d prefer not to admit it. With no small amount of spite, Renton believes this to be an indictment of a despairing, rudderless society. In a world as bleak and hopeless as this, why not escape through drugs?
When he’s not shooting up in a dingy apartment, Renton is hanging out with his eclectic group of friends. Chief among them are Sick Boy, a charming but perverse womanizer; Spud, the sweetest junkie you’ll ever meet and Begbie, a sociopathic hurricane of violence and fear. The story is told through vignettes, brief glimpses into their aimless, high-chasing lives. One of the most memorable involves Renton and Spud trying to intentionally botch their job interviews, a brilliant showcase of Welsh’s pitch-black humour.
The tenuous relationship between these men is a nuanced exploration of male friendship, the subtle dynamics that underpin seemingly shallow “man talk” e.g. football, women, etc. Sick Boy’s success with women inspires more envy and loathing than respect and admiration. Begbie is a ticking time-bomb of volatile rage that must be constantly placated by his “friends”. Spud meanwhile, is a bit of a joke. There are implicit power dynamics, lines that should never be crossed, things that should never be said. The uncomfortable realities of a close-knit friend group are as authentically depicted as the sleazy, amoral drug scene.
The vignettes usually centre on Renton and friends but often branching out to include strangers whose conflicts share thematic or narrative parallels. Many characters speak in phonetic Scots English. This achieves the dual purpose of giving the syntax a wild, archaic edge and further cementing this is as an unmistakably Scottish novel. However, the book is less interested in being perceived as Scottish and more interested in dissecting what it actually means to be Scottish. For Welsh, that is a national identity shackled by inferiority to the English, reflected and manifested in the insecurities of its people. This is to say that if ever there was a place where young people would give themselves over to heroin, it would be Scotland.
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