Irvine Welsh – ‘Trainspotting’ The Folio Society edition review

There are some artistic endeavors taking their sweet time filtering into the public consciousness. Others announce themselves in a surprising way and have an immediate impact on the current culture. Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ falls firmly in the latter camp. At the time of its publication, the novel earned a place on the longlist for the prestigious Booker Prize for the first time the author. A film adaptation over the course of two years ensured that characters such as Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy reached a wider audience.

The question is why Welles’s characters resonated so strongly with the public in the mid-1990s, and why a group of junkies in Leith, Edinburgh, found their everyday experiences resonating with new generations. Part of the answer is that Welsh wrote parts of the book in Scots, lending authenticity to the characters’ voices. It’s an original style choice, but more importantly, the author’s pursuit of authenticity creates an enlightening experience for his readers. It is possible to draw and hear the characters, see their surroundings and occasionally smell the poverty around them. If you’re looking for a world-shaping book that you can immerse yourself in, Trainspotting is a great option.

Credit: Folio Society

In the year Although it was published in 1993, the events of ‘Trainspotting’ took place half a decade earlier in the late 1980s. This distinction is important because the AIDS epidemic is taking hold. With heroin addicts sharing needles and passing blood, Edinburgh became a center for drug addiction and HIV infection. This strongly evokes ‘Trainspotting’ in its early days, when the time from HIV infection to AIDS death was certainly less than a decade, and in many cases transporters lived in poverty. What ‘Trainspotting’ captures so vividly is the cheapness of life and the indifference to death when all human activity becomes addictive.

To portray the desperation of Edinburgh’s low life, Welsh creates memorable characters, many of whom are amoral and even immoral, but who draw and captivate the reader. Not all are junkies. Beggi, for example, may be psychotic, but he doesn’t use it. Instead he got his kicks from violence, most of which was unprovoked until his victims were gone. The book is told from multiple points of view, but Renton emerges as the main character. This serves the reader well because, unlike some of the characters in his orbit, Renton is not yet hopeless or beyond redemption.

Humor is a hook that keeps the reader interested and entertained. The author’s turns of phrase are excellent. Begin describes him as “in a cave, looking around a nicotine-stained bar, in the reduced state of an arrogant knight.” Such prosaic statements are often laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes the funniest moments come at the expense of the character’s confusion, such as when the lovable Spud takes a job interview and lets himself believe it went well, and he’s a shoe-in for the role. Often times, Gallows’ darkest humor takes the pages because a character or someone else’s HIV infection or other death is reported among the social circle.

Folio Association 'Transporting'
Credit: Folio Society

Summarizing the plot of ‘Trainspotting’ is no easy task. Although certain key moments of the cinematic adaptation are lifted from the pages of Welsh’s work, it’s easy to say that the film deviates too much from its source material. Begbie, pulling an empty pin glass from the bar’s balcony, for example, survived unscathed. The book opens with Renton, struggling to overcome his heroin addiction, buying slow-release suppositories to ease his cravings. Faced with the Junkie’s inevitable run-in, he is forced to empty his bowels in the toilet of a bookmaker’s shop, thereby losing the suppositories in his bowl. He was faced with a dilemma. Choosing to splash on the urine-covered floor and stick his hand into an unflushed toilet to fish for suppositories, Welsh makes for a memorable and memorable opening sequence. It gives readers access to the state of mind and priorities of a heroin addict that can’t be understood by anyone who has not struggled with addiction. Unsurprisingly, this also makes it into the movie. Another moment that everyone remembers is the death of the child, but this is handled in a different way in the book. The way a sick child later talks about the child’s death is another psychological insight into a culture of indifference where everything is just for addiction.

Rather than following a straight line from start to finish with a clear plot where each act moves the story inexorably forward, ‘Trainspotting’ is a collection of short stories featuring a ragtag group of friends. This may alienate or confuse some readers, although it is an understandable choice if the characters are driven to separate from any normal life or succeed. The sheer volume of bad language on every page will be too much for some, though the characters speak so wonderfully that you may be oblivious to it. It can take a while for non-Scottish readers to tune in to the rhythm, especially in the parts written in dialect (relatively rare – don’t let the opening pages fool you). “Labu Oafai beats a sick child; Figuratively speaking, it is the opening sentence. Once your eyes and ears are adjusted, regional dialects and certain place names can leave non-native readers completely at sea. Be prepared to go with the flow and accept that some jokes and cultural references may float over your head.

Folio Association 'Transporting'
Credit: Folio Society

The passage of three decades makes certain aspects of the book more significant. It is male dominated. There are female characters, but they are often male sexual conquests or interests and their voices do not carry the story. Unfazed by obligations, the men are hedonistic and hardened by the cruelty of their world. Their friendships and associations are questionable, and are based on drugs, alcohol or violence. Mark Renton is an ongoing character who opens and closes the narrative. Others come in and out. Davy Mitchell narrates two separate episodes in different parts of the book. The second story, ‘Bad Blood’, is one of the most disturbing Vinos ever, as he takes a vicious and deadly revenge on a man infected with HIV.

Popular culture inhabits the book throughout its pages in the real world. Movie action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme is mentioned in the first paragraph. There’s a chapter called ‘There’s a light that never goes out’ after the cult 80s band ‘The Smiths’ song of the same name. A train journey through ‘Inter Shitty’ recalls the heyday of national rail services. There is a strong and unmistakable sense of time and place. You cannot escape. For anyone wondering why on earth the story is called ‘Trainspotting’, the answer comes towards the end of the novel when Renton and Begbie meet Begbie’s father at the train station. Very little is said, yet much is explained. That’s essentially the power of Wells’s writing. ‘Trainspotting’ is a strong, distinct and uncompromising fairy tale. That in itself is more than enough to recommend it. The novel has withstood the test of time so it can definitely be considered a modern classic.

Folio Association 'Transporting'
Credit: Folio Society

The Folio Society’s thirtieth anniversary edition of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ is mounted in a slipcase with two parallel lines cut into it, recalling the railways mentioned in the title. Excellent design is full of such details. The blue-green color is contrasted with a strong back cover that is tied with a bright yellow cloth. Nicole Rifkin’s Pop Art-style color illustrations pepper the pages. A new introduction to the Scots language by author and English literature expert John Sutherland provides a more in-depth and useful overview for the uninitiated.

Publisher: Folio Society Date of publication: July 6, 2023 Buy ‘Trainspotting’

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