The junkie in literature: a review of ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh

trainspotting‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh is the fourth in a series of a books I am reading and reviewing based on the theme “The junkie in literature” with the aim to learn more about this sub-culture.

I’ve so far read and reviewed ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner, ‘Junky’ by William S. Burroughs and ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ by Thomas De Quincey.

When I think of Trainspotting, my mind immediately conjures up scenes from the movie of the novel: Mark “Rent Boy’ Renton emerging from the bowl of the filthiest toilet in Scotland, the dead baby crawling on the ceiling, Begbie throwing his glass of beer over his head in a crowded pub and the lines:

“Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machine; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth.”

The film was fantastic and horrible.

The book is much, much better.

A brilliant, excruciating, haunting and often hilarious story about a group of Scottish junkies (and one pyschotic lunatic – Francis Begbie) set in the impoverished council estates of Edinburgh circa the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Mark Renton is the axis of the novel, an intelligent, ocassionaly cruel, somewhat bitter and philosophical junky, who in between trying to quit heroin, muses about the meaning of his life, what it means to be Scottish (colonised by English ‘wankers’ is how he puts it), trying to understand women and the pleasures and pain of being a junkie.

Many of the chapters are narrated through his eyes, but also through the eyes of sweet, hopeless romantic ‘Spud’, the psychotic fury of Frank Begbie and a number of other characters that form part of the scene.

In this way, the reader gets a 360 degree view of the world of the junky: binge drinking, shooting up in squalid apartments, random sex, attempts at a normal life.

The first thing that will strike anyway who reads the book is that its written phonetically, in Scottish dialect, meaning as a reader you have to adjust to the language and at times decipher the meaning of words.

Here’s Renton describing injecting himself:

…Ah start tae cook up another shot. As ah shakily haud the spoon over the candle, waitin for the junk tae dissolve, ah think; more short-term sea, more long-term poison. This thought though is naewhere near sufficient tae stop us fae what ah huv tae dae.”

Strangely, this does not distract from the story telling or plot, but really centres you in the time and place and experiences of the characters in the book.

It gives parts of the book a poetic quality as Welsh managed to convey the gruff musicality of the working class Scottish accent.

For this is a distinctly Scottish tale about heroin addiction, friendship, betrayal, love, radges (crazy people), gadges (schemers) and futbal (football).

It’s about people caught up at the bottom end of the Scottish welfare state with little hope or ambition to get out.

Intelligent and worldly, Renton shares the common trait of many junkies.

Like the writer/drifter William S. Burroughs in ‘Junky, artist Javo in ‘Monkey Grip’ and perceptive, strong-headed and proud Thomas De Quincey in ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’, Renton searches for something to take life beyond the mundane, to rise above crowd, or just to escape the mind-numbing boredom of existence, of everyday life.

Though being a junky is heaven and hell for Renton, Spud and Sick Boy, it is preferable to the familiar storyline of getting married, getting a mortgage, buying a bigger television, a car and watching “mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows.

Describing the heroin ‘hit’, Renton says: “Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace.”

On the effects of heroin: “Julie looked really good when she started oan smack. Maist lassies dae. It seems tae bring oot the best in them. It always seem to gie, before it takes back, wi interest.”

On the appeal of heroin.: “Ma problem is, whenever ah sense the possibility, or realise the actuality ay attaining something that ah thought ah wanted…it just seems so dull n sterlie. Junk’s different though. Ye cannae turn yir back oan it sae easy. It willnae let ye. Trying tae manage a junk problem is the ultimate challenge It’s also a fuckin good kick.”

Trainspotting is a harsh book, unpleasant and horrfying as it is hilarious and insightful, but you get an incredible kick out of reading it, because you become part of the scene.

Required reading I say!

8 thoughts on “The junkie in literature: a review of ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh

  1. Your descriptions of reading the unique style of this book are spot on. I’m studying an MFA on this type of narrative and would love to include a few quotes from you. Excellent and perceptive.


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