“By definition, you have to live until you die. Better to make that life as complete and enjoyable an experience as possible, in case death is shite, which I suspect it will be”
This novel is a long and wild ride through the lives of a group of young Scottish school friends grown up to be afflicted and bound by addiction. The chapters flit between different members of the inside group or outer-edge acquaintances for their narrative voices; though Mark Renton or ‘Rents’ or ‘Rent Boy’ is given the most narrative responsibility. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern who is narrating until far into each story, and I’ll admit, I finished a few chapters without ever working out who was speaking, but was too eager to continue to go back and look for clues.
The whole effect of this cut-up and stunted mesh of stories from different perspectives, with the sense of things ‘missing’ from never working out who was telling some chapters, all works in favour of combining to tell the incomplete and damaged story of life as a heroin addict. You’d be hard-pressed to identify a character who does not end up losing something – without spoiling too much, a baby, a friend, a fortune, a limb, a life – and so a sense of loss in time or understanding when reading only adds to the overwhelming effect of what most of us can only imagine a life consumed by addiction to mind and body-altering substances to entail.
Trainspotting is written 98% in Scottish colloquial dialect, which is a huge hurdle to overcome when you first open it. As I went along and was drawn in, although it did take a while, I basically ignored that it isn’t written in standard English. Once every word has appeared twice and you’ve worked out vaguely what it means, it’s no longer an obstacle (though it did take ages to realise that “kin” means “know”, which I swear I have never heard a Scottish person ever say). Each page is also peppered with the c-word, but let’s face the fact that it’s 2015 and I’m a student and I’ve heard it a million times already so a million more makes absolutely no difference; and actually I would be interested in finding out how many times it features in the whole novel because it must literally be quite close to that exaggerated estimate.
The review on the back of my copy dubs it “a starburst of verbal energy – a vernacular spectacular … the stories we hear are retched from the gullet” (Scotland on Sunday). This is incredibly succinct, particularly in the use of “retched” – this novel won’t be for the weak-stomached among us; there’s as much description of the bile that is spoken as there is of literal bile and all other bodily emissions, as is the reality of uninhibited young addicts with little dignity left to hold sacred. There is absolutely nothing sacred in these stories.
Trainspotting delivers the pure, uncensored shock and horror of the 80s-90s underbelly of the Scottish rave scene, hard-drug culture and rise of HIV/AIDS, so much that you feel like you actually need a wash after reading. Like you can envisage you just woke up on a filthy mattress in a crack-house squat covered in your own vomit every time you pick it up. Despite the overwhelming stickiness and dirtiness, you emerge safe in your own world feeling you’ve just witnessed a glistening white, shining and glorious spectacle of storytelling rare to experience.