Book review: Dead Men’s Trousers, by Irvine Welsh

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This, apparently, is the last novel Irvine Welsh will write with the cast of his breakout debut Trainspotting. Thank goodness for that, though I doubt it. Welsh has squandered his original vision with a series of increasingly wretched spin-offs – the sequel Porno, the prequel Skagboys, the yet-again-sequel The Blade Artist. Having reached the bottom of the barrel, he now seems intent on tunnelling to Australia.

In Dead Men’s Trousers – an almost unintentionally ironic title, given the zombie prose – we catch up with the gang. Spud, predictably, is a kind-hearted and useless street beggar. But the original radges all seem to have done rather well for themselves. Renton is an international manager of DJs, Begbie, as per the previous novel, is an internationally renowned artist, and Sick Boy is keeping ends together with his entrepreneurial escort agencies. It wouldn’t be an Irvine Welsh novel without drugs, anal sex and intermittent violence, but it is striking that in this work there are also many paragraphs about tax regulations and systems, and how to get round them. Cynically, it also does a pub-bore version of socialism: the banks, Thatcher, the BBC, the elites – they’re the ones to blame.

Irvine Welsh PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Irvine Welsh PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

The plot, such as it is, converges on our old comrades. Sick Boy spikes his brother-in-law’s drink and ends up involved in blackmail. Renton is trying to redeem himself by paying them all back. Begbie’s new artwork is a series of bronze heads cast from the cast. Spud has a dug that he likes. There is something elegiac in all this, but in terms of the author, not the characters. I looked at Trainspotting again and it is remarkably restrained in terms of its stiletto vulgarity. Here, on one page alone, we have seven uses of the f-word and eight of the c-word. At one point I wondered if Welsh perhaps now outsourced his novels to a thousand monkeys at a thousand iPads, and growled up and down the aisles saying “Not enough effs! More c-words, ya bams!” By the way, if some of his characters’ outbursts at Hibs winning the cup had been said on the terraces, then it would have been actionable. Sectarianism is neither a literary device nor a laughing matter.

I have said beforehand that all books have a surreptitious bad conscience, a niggle of the author’s own inadequacy and sense of bad faith. I have never before read one where almost every page displays it. Take these as a few examples: “I should feel a retro loser, but it’s oddly comforting, being here in Leith”; “I stare back at masel in the mirror: a hollow fool who has learned f*** all”; “Ah mean actors, stardom, aw that stuff. They say if ye become famous, ye naturally freeze at that age. And he wis a child star. Se eh stayed a bit ay a bairn really” (note, as well, the inelegant uncertainty of he vs eh); “it eyewis annoyed the f*** oot ay ays when they went on aboot drugs, f****n drugs, f****n drugs aw the time. Ah mean, take the c**** or dinnae; but dinnae f****n talk about them twenty-four seven!”; “Ye dinnae get how art works, mate. It has zero value other than what people are prepared to pay for it”. Zero value indeed. Trainspotting was about Renton getting away with it; Dead Men’s Trousers is about Irvine Welsh getting away with it.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing in this “novel” is the hyperactivity of the exclamation mark. It is its incessant use, much more than the cussing, that reveals the waning of ability. If you can’t make a sentence striking, stick “!” at the end of it. It’s the cudgel of punctuation. Again, there were relatively few in Trainspotting. This book is as much a technical failure as it is an ethical failure. The registers swerve ludicrously – one character will think, on the same page, “Exasperation has made me publicly air my concern” and then “But I cannot believe this f****n doss c***”.

Before I am denounced as a prude, let me say that I have read de Sade and Sacher-Masoch, Bataille and Burroughs, Nin and Millet. I have found them challenging, enlightening, bold and daring. I have never found them boring or trite, the way Welsh is. He has become Scottish literature’s equivalent of Compo from Last Of The Summer Wine, a shabby thing whose only puerile pleasure is in frightening elderly women by showing them whatever small thing he has in his very small matchbox.

Fiction, at its best, is about empathy; about putting oneself in another’s shoes. Trainspotting did that, bravely. But this is a horse of a different colour, a shifty extension of the franchise that ought to have stopped decades ago. It is awful for an author to become their own parody, and I feel genuinely sorry that Welsh seems to think the advance equals becoming his own weak imitation. That said, I feel soiled and sullied in my soul by reading this juvenile, Dad-dancing tripe, and would earnestly ask that no-one else should pay money to do so.

Dead Men’s Trousers, by Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape, £16.99