Trainspotting’s prequel is as bad as the later Star Wars films, and risks ruining our appreciation of a classic, warns David Stenhouse
IT IS a novel read by an entire generation: the paperback of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting carries the bravura tagline “deserves to sell more copies than the Bible” and an image of floating white skulls looming out of darkness, like an image from the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Comic, savage, a searing urban anti-pastoral, Trainspotting deserved almost all the praise it got. Both naturalistic and grotesquely exaggerated it nailed a particular time in Edinburgh, and gave aesthetic shape to the experience of an entire generation in the midst of the HIV epidemic. Rereading that book today is still a revelation. Sick Boy, Renton, Spud and Begbie are still fresh after twenty years. Welsh’s savage, funny, searing language still sings on the page. It is impossible to read the novel without recognising that it has been produced by an extraordinary talent.
We know what happened next. Trainspotting was turned first into a powerful play at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh then into a film which captured the energy and spirit of the original.
And Irvine Welsh, despite writing Glue, The Bedroom Secrets Of The Masterchefs and others, seems to be unwilling to leave Trainspotting alone. We have already had the sequel, 2002’s Porno. Now, weighing in at 548 pages, we have the prequel, Skagboys.
In interviews Welsh has indicated that some of this book is based on the first section of a 300,000 word urtext. Trainspotting was the middle section. This one, describing the journey of Renton, Spud and Sickboy from lads about town to heroin addicts, is the first.
As such it is very clearly situated in time. Or should be. Skagboys is set in 1984, moving into 1985. It begins with the battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike, recalled in a handwritten journal entry by Renton, and ends with Edinburgh well on the way to becoming the “Aids Capital of Europe”.
But though the music, and the football matches playing on pub TV pinpoint the date, nothing else does. For a man who made his name through his grasp of the pungent, heteroglossia of Edinburgh speech, Welsh seems to have lost his grip on how people spoke in the 80s.
In 1984, a “muppet” wasn’t yet an idiot, and a Brazilian was still a native of the largest country in South America, not a species of pubic topiary. Any fleeting thought that these might be deliberate mistakes is quickly dispelled by the book’s other errors. At University in Aberdeen in 1984, Renton sees his girlfriend Fiona “outside the Lemon Tree”. Prescient stuff, given that the venue wouldn’t open for some years to come. And so on, and so on, a steady trickle of annoying, pointless errors, some big, some small, all of which merely alienate the reader, and all of which should have been picked up as this book was edited.
This being Welsh of course, this uneven novel has moments of great power: Alison, who gets more character development here than in the original book, embarks on an affair with her boss, who is convinced that Edinburgh is in the grip of a great plague; Dutch Elm disease, which serves here as an arboreal shadow of the other plague in town.
Renton’s alienation from his parents, his resentment of them and their disappointment with the son who made it to university and ended up on heroin are nicely done. And those who read Welsh for his comic grotesque set-pieces of sexual horror will find much to relish in the story of Renton’s severely handicapped brother Davie, Mary Marquis and a fateful night watching Reporting Scotland.
To give some architectural shape to all this, there are factual sections entitled “Notes on an epidemic” which trace the expansion of the HIV epidemic through Edinburgh society. But inevitably “factual” here is loosely applied, since the first one in the series contains a mistake too.
But it’s not just in this tiresome parade of errors that this prequel sells the original short.
The characters (it’s tempting to say “cast” after the success of the play and film of the book) in Trainspotting appeared fully formed the first time we met them. They had just enough back story already to justify their actions.
The danger with this book is that it slips into trite psychology to explain what once exploded on the page with such power in Trainspotting.
After watching George Lucas’s Phantom Menace it is impossible to remember the impact Darth Vader had when he first appeared on screen in 1977. (Welsh seems to have some fleeting sense of this in the way that he refuses to give us Begbie’s back story in Skagboys. Not only do we not need to know, we don’t want to.)
As prequels go, this one is an absolute Phantom Menace. Not just an overdue disappointment, but one which diminishes the power of the original. Lovers of Trainspotting should avoid this book.
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