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10 years on... and they haven't progressed
on 29 September 2007
Porno, as everyone should know by now, catches up with the characters from Trainspotting 10 years on. In the books since then (namely, Ecstasy, Filth, and Glue, with the exception of the criminally under-rated Marabou Stork Nightmares), the rascals have turned up in one guise or another so it's no real surprise that Welsh has returned to them. While it does help to create Welsh's own world, his fictional equivalent of Edinburgh as a closed environment. The cynic might say that this makes life easier for Welsh as all he has to do when he requires is let Begbie (or Larry Doyle, or Lexo, all previous creations) pop up.
This time there is no authorial narrative; the story is all told be the various characters. Welsh is superb at voices, and conveys the mindscape of Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud, Renton with no little skill. He also adds a new character, Nikki Fuller-Smith, a highly attractive female student from Reading, who meets Sick Boy and agrees to his scheme of making a porn, which forms the spine of the novel.
Welsh also understands and skillfully evokes the changes and developments of the four ex-Trainspotters superbly. He has a razor-sharp eye for social detail and uses this to great effect. It's one of the sad things in life that while youngsters from different backgrounds may start out on similar paths, eventually these differences alter their lives fundamentally. So Spud is getting nowhere fast, drifting through life and barely coping on a day-to-day basis; Sick Boy fears the onset of age as a user like him would no longer be able to blag it ("I need product" he says); Begbie, newly released from prison, continues on his inexorable path towards death or jail; while Renton, clearly Welsh's alter-ego, is an upwardly-mobile working-class intellectual. How their life trajectories have changed since Trainspotting is the real interest of the novel, rather than the porn fim itself, which sometimes seems like an excuse for some transgressive writing, on the pros and cons of anal sex for instance.
Porno is nowhere nearly as good as Trainspotting, but that was perhaps to be expected, for that has a white-hot intensity that can never be recaptured. It's like a punk band laying down their first album; there's a joyful euphoria to it, even if the material is edgy and bleak. Subsequent works are more professional maybe, but there is never the same focus and intensity. It's the difference between "Appetite For Destruction" and the "Use Your illusion" albums. The philsophical subtexts in Trainspotting (the use of Kierkegaard for instance) and the multiple narratives of Marabout Stork have similarly never been repeated, so Welsh's recent work lacks the literary qualities which once made it so exceptional, and seems fixated rather on the sex, drugs and violence.
Also, there's an unfortunate predictability - Nikki gets a flatmate, and who should it be but Dianne, from the "The First Shag In Ages" chapter in Trainspotting, and you can imagine what happens when Renton returns to Edinburgh. The climax, too, where Renton and Begbie meet, after just missing each other for some time (as you do in a city of 250,000 people) is dreadful. Perhaps it's an ironic joke to have a book called Porno have such an anti-climax, but sadly I don't think so. It's just so disappointing.
Nonetheless, there are many things to enjoy about this book: the humour, the narrative verve, the insight and detail, the characters, the cultural references are all good fun. But the book isn't a literary novel; it's popular fiction, and that's the difference between Irvine Welsh being great and him being quite good.