Illustration by Ryan Sanchez
Irvine Welsh’s latest novel is a relief. That’s to say: It’s a relief if you, like me, consider Welsh an inordinately gifted, even brilliant, writer whose recent fascination with the ins and outs of British “rave” culture — perhaps in combination with the swoony effect of ravers’ reciprocal love for his books — has sidetracked his work and transformed all but the hippest of his readers into semi-interested voyeurs. Pretty much since the publication of his adventurous second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares (the last of his books to receive serious critical attention, on this side of the Atlantic at least), Welsh has seemed to me and other longtime believers like a writer less interested in writing fiction than in partying occasionally with the writing program on his laptop. The problem is not the drugs, music and kids he has so lovingly enshrined in his books. If anything, the problem is that he’s given them most of his attention, but not enough of his considerable talent.
It’s possible that Welsh has spent the last six or so years making a sincere attempt to reinvent (or at least decentralize) narrative, using the heady and disorienting effects of Ecstasy and electronic music as new spirit guides. That would have been a real achievement, whether it left a portion of his readers behind or not. But the resulting two books — the triple-novella collection Ecstasy and the hard-fried noir detective novel Filth — were disappointments, pleasurable sporadically and seemingly by default. Their intermittent joys had almost entirely to do with the giddy, infectious sound of the 40-something-year-old author’s youth-culture-besmitten voice. Meanwhile — and herein lay the problem — the old fundamentals, like plot and character development, didn’t so much dissipate meaningfully into the linguistic free flight as rigidify into hoary, glaring structural devices that inadvertently pointed to his halfhearted grasp of the basics of his craft. More than anything, the books made Welsh seem like a writer who appeared to be enjoying himself when he wasn’t writing.
That said, even these relatively weak books have been enormously popular, with or without reviewers’ support. Amazon.com’s Welsh pages are packed with wow-filled reviews by his mostly young enthusiasts, to whom Ecstasy and Filth are Welsh’s coolest books simply because they’re the most recent. The books may be closer to trendy souvenirs of his talent than topnotch works of fiction, but compared to most other contemporary writers who capture the so-called youth market — say, the groovy but straight-laced Nick Hornby and Jeffrey Eugenides — Welsh, even at his laziest, is a supreme iconoclast whose work always brings home the importance of originality and idealism. The ease with which the critical establishment has begun to characterize him as a one-hit wonder who wrote the book upon which the movie Trainspotting was based, speaks more to that establishment’s stunted expectations than it does to Welsh’s less-than-stellar but in no way disastrous recent output.
Glue, as you might have gathered by now, is Welsh’s return to form. A nearly 500-page novel whose narrative spans four decades, it follows the lives of four underprivileged Scottish lads from their lively, beleaguered childhoods in the early 1970s to their lively, damaged adulthoods in the early 21st century. Still, what’s great, or at least near-great, about Glue is not what you’d expect — nor what his publishers are trumpeting — namely, that Welsh proves he can execute one of the standard touchstones associated with “great” fiction, the multigenerational epic novel of self-discovery. The beauty of Glue — and, not surprisingly, the thing that has irked the book’s early reviewers — is Welsh’s ability to reduce the framework of this sacred literary cow into a mere playground for the glorious energy, wit and poetic sensibility of his prose, and simultaneously provide himself with an opportunity to celebrate the classic rock & roll and up-to-the-minute dance music that his work can’t seem to live without.
For better or worse, those who’ve read more than one of Welsh’s books will find nothing herein completely unfamiliar, from its mostly Edinburgh setting to its thematic exploration of the positives and negatives of escaping poverty through the adoption of a humane, hedonistic lifestyle. His four protagonists are less fully formed individuals than a single concept of the working-class antihero fractured into four somewhat distinct personalities. Terry, Carl, Billy and Andrew are drinking, drugging, carousing, chattering buddies who essentially spend 40 years in one another’s company. They age, but otherwise remain almost unchanged. Succeeding eras’ clubs, inebriants of choice and fashions are raised and lowered around them, almost like stage sets, causing different reference points to enter and leave their otherwise unevolving repartee. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in London or Amsterdam, 19 or 38 years old, they aim to get high, laid and/or rich in various combinations. If this is a novel about anything in the traditional sense, it’s about how male bonding maintains men’s sanity in a world destined to slowly emasculate and defeat them.
The writing, with rare exceptions, is in Welsh’s patented Scottish yob speak, as in this randomly chosen sentence: “Ye ken how it is; wir dancing n hugging n kissin n just spreadin that big fucking lurve vibe.” The narrative is strong on the kind of extended comic episodes or routines that William S. Burroughs made famous. (In fact, Burroughs’ massive influence on Welsh’s pulpy, disrespected plots and improvisational, hit-or-miss tempos has never been more apparent.) The storyline, such as it is — imagine an episode of MTV’s Jackass with the pre-stunt preparations and post-stunt aches and pains left in — refuses to go in any direction whereby it could potentially bore its author, no matter at what cost to pacing and continuity. It doesn’t so much end satisfactorily as realize it’s running out of gas and coasts to a stop anyway. In other words, if you think a long piece of fiction that behaves like a novel must fulfill the responsibilities of a traditional novel, then Glue will frustrate you left and right. But if you think a really good novel is just an occasion for an amazing writer to pull off something that only he can do, then Glue is your book.
It might also be said that Glue’s very strength seems to signal that Welsh’s impact on contemporary literature is a done deal. This is not to say, as so many have, that early books like Trainspotting and The Acid House are his best, and the rest have been written on the power of their fumes. For all of Welsh’s ups and downs, his singular and magnificent voice remains a supernatural force, even if the milieu it describes is no longer so intriguingly off the map. If Gluereworks rather than reinvents Welsh’s well-known concerns, it only suggests that the turf he chose for his work is far rangier than it first appeared. If our interest in his inebriated, moody, corrosive world has slacked off, Glue is proof that his definitely hasn’t. So where Trainspotting heralded both an important new voice and a significant mouthpiece for a new, previously unarticulated generation, Glue is a great example of why Welsh caused such a fuss in the first place — and, on its own terms, as thrilling and ambitious a book as Welsh has written.