From the archives: Stuart Kelly reviews Porno by Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh

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This review originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 25 August 2002

Porno

By Irvine Welsh

Jonathan Cape, £10.99

EVERYONE knows the dinner party game: name a sequel that was better than the original film. Godfather II. The Empire Strikes Back. Three Colours White. It works as a game because, given that follow-up usually means falling-off, good sequels are rare. In literature there are possibly even fewer: Scott’s only sequel, The Abbot, is a vast improvement on The Monastery. The later Enderby novels by Anthony Burgess are amongst his most rewarding. So where will Porno - or Trainspotting II: Back in the Habit - fall on the scale: return to form or best forgotten? Utterly and unquestionably the latter. Porno is not just a bad sequel, nor is it merely an inadequate book. It is the worst book I have read for a long, long time. If Trainspotting and its imitators were part of a ‘Scottish Renaissance’, Porno is the resurgence of the Dark Ages.

The plot, such as it is, can be summarised quickly enough. Ten years have elapsed since Trainspotting. The freshly-released Begbie has not been rehabilitated by a stint in the clink. Sick Boy, now the proprietor of a pub, is diversifying into pornographic movies. Renton is popping fewer pills in his club in Amsterdam. And Spud is still a hopeless addict, although he is enjoying writing a history of Leith from the point of view of the common man. At the end of the 500 pages, Sick Boy has made his video, Renton has run off with the money again, Begbie’s revenge is stalled through being hit by a car and Spud’s history is rejected, though he also rapes an incontinent alcoholic prostitute. In addition, we meet a new character: Nikki Fuller-Smith. She’s English - hence the double-barrelled name - a student, Sick Boy’s squeeze and a keen proponent of the liberating effects of pornography.

One can very nearly make out the lineaments of what Welsh was trying to achieve here. Pornography, rather than narcotics, is the method of analysing late capitalism. Both are conduits for denial of reality. Both are locked into exploitation. Professionally, it appears that Welsh is trying to broaden his range; by introducing a female voice and opting for a narrative arc rather than loosely-stitched set-pieces. So why does it all go so hopelessly wrong?

The character of Nikki is perhaps the easiest thread to pull in order to see the whole sorry mess unravel. In an early speech, she states that she wants “to be the one in control. Me. A woman. And I’ll tell you right now, the only industry where you have that control to any meaningful extent is pornography”. This proposition is countered not only externally by her flatmate (although dismissed as the ravings of “that closet lesbo frigid little moraliser”), but also internally. It is framed by her self-loathing, her bulimia, her dysfunctional relationship with family. This begs the question: if the ill approve, is it symptom or cure? Welsh never even attempts an answer. Nikki’s flirtation with pornography leads to great sex, mild cystitis and lots of money. In terms of plot mechanics, it is a success; however, its psychological effect is suspended and unexplored. At the end, whether Nikki is still bulimic or not is a moot point. It is as if the disease was only introduced to give the appearance of three dimensions.

Welsh’s method of narration exacerbates this. With five narrators, there is the opportunity to shift perspectives, challenge perceptions; an opportunity he steadfastly refuses to develop. For example, we get Sick Boy’s salacious account of filming their orgy, where he admits seeing Nikki with Terry makes him feel “strangely weird, especially as she seems to be loving it”. What we do not get is Nikki’s version. Was she or wasn’t she? Is this his projection, or are we being asked to take this as the actual truth? In failing to address this narrative lacuna, Welsh not only forgoes the chance to make the character believable, but actively promotes the lop-sided, voyeuristic viewpoint. Porno, at that point, is obscene.

No, this is not just a prude’s knee-jerk against a book dealing with sex. Martin Amis’s Money and AL Kennedy’s Original Bliss both, in differing ways, offered subtle dissections of the overlaps between pornography, eroticism and intimacy. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho far more effectively and chillingly linked consumerism with sexual psychopathy. Cendrars, Gombrowicz, Bataille and Carter all excelled at unpicking and twisting our ideas of desire, power and their abuses. All of them, however, could write. Welsh is embarrassingly inept.

Staying with Nikki, take, for example, this sentence: “There’s such a throbbing heat between my legs that I almost expect my pubic hair to be aflame”. Although, outside of the context, the reader might assume this was the cystitis incident, it is actually about great sex. The archaic use of ‘aflame’ is bad enough, the cliche of ‘throbbing heat’ is lazy, and the image patently puerile and anatomically adrift. Moreover, Welsh relies on clumsy adverbs; for someone supposedly proficient at dialogue, it’s surprising how many utterances need a qualifying adverb, in case we hadn’t got the point. The use of Scots is inconsistent within its own rules: “tae” and “to”, “f**cking” and “f**kin”, “oan” and “on”, all in the mouth of the same character on the same page. Riddled with hackneyed phrases, littered with last year’s tepid pop-culture references, it also manages to be larded with pseudo-religious sentiment: nearly every character has a ‘soul’ somewhere, usually when the word ‘eye’, ‘balls’ or ‘gut’ would be more apt. It has been said that Welsh ‘gave a voice’ to the working class of Edinburgh. The relevant trade union branches should sue for defamation.

What, though, does Porno tell us about the author’s attitude towards pornography? Well, it’s more like a Channel 5 documentary than The People Vs Larry Flynt. Spud, who commits a luxuriantly dwelt over, repulsive abuse - though this is never again referred to in the book - has had no contact with the tawdry exploits of Sick Boy et al: therefore porn, we assume, does not lead to rape. The women all, m’lud, appeared to be enjoying themselves; except when they wernae, and their considerate pimps took them to the Ubiquitous Chip as compensation, after which they seemed barry. Top toff totty wants Leith low-life.

Throughout the book there is a concentration on anality that would send the most sceptical therapist reaching for Freud. Nikki betrays Sick Boy after his editing creates the mirage that she, who “just wouldn’t do that”, just did. “I read a book of modern Scottish poetry once and it shat on anything Burns has ever done”. Far be it from me to presume a diagnosis of authorial arrested development or writerly immaturity. Porno reveals that Welsh was a one-trick pony. He cannot manage a story, he is incapable of complexity, devoid of imagination and, above all, cannot approach an idea with sophistication or empathy. Worse still, witting or unwittingly, he revels in the idea of victims lauding their oppression, a damaged culture bleating in its own mock-misery. The time has come for us all, far more than the characters of this vile drivel, to grow up.

Do not buy this book. The cover manages to say it all: a blow-up, fake woman. Tattered edges approaching the name. And an ironic printed price-marker label that the remainder shop can easily cover over.

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