lip lit: Skagboys
Skagboys is the latest offering from Irvine Welsh, who burst onto the literary scene with the notorious Trainspotting (1993). Skagboys revisits the characters of Trainspotting, trailing them on a manic journey into the Edinburgh’s drug scene. Welsh describes it as a “why” book, investigating the characters, relationships and the broader society that the characters inhabit. It is an erratic and difficult novel, but it has been met with considerable praise since its publication in 2012.
Like Trainspotting, Skagboys is written in a strong Scottish dialect. There is no glossary. There’s no central point of view. There’s no discernible plot, beyond a sprawling attempt to explain how the main characters of Trainspotting (namely Mark Renton and Sick Boy) came to be heroin addicts in the Scotland of Maggie Thatcher. In an interview, Welsh said of the social setting that drove the young men to dabble in drugs ‘when there’s no employment and education and opportunities, it’s almost like drugs win by default. There is, literally, nothing else.’ This is by no means a book one takes on lightly.
The confusing form the novel takes obviously echoes the disjointed and jarring world of the young men that fill it. Chapters jump perspectives without signposting whose story we’re experiencing. One gets the sense from this lack of narrative clarity, that while it is their story of drug addiction, it broadly speaks of a generation that lost themselves. Welsh made it clear that Skagboys grew from original Trainspotting material, and it does at times feel like a work born from many small parts, rather than a cohesive story. It is certainly a novel for Welsh’s fanboys/girls, closed off from the uninitiated.
Principle narrator is Mark Renton, an intellectual lad who looks down his nose at heroin users. He is at university, and has a gorgeous girlfriend, Fiona. Beneath the cocky, Schopenhauer-quoting exterior, is a troubled soul. The novel explores the complexities of his family – the death of his severely disabled brother, his relationship with his father, and so on, as we learn how he becomes a junkie. Perhaps the most poignant parts of the novel come in the form of Renton’s rehab diary excerpts, where he speaks with a tragic honesty. ‘It’s the process review group that reminds me of why I take drugs. We’re meant tae be looking at how we interact with each other here in the centre, but it generally descends into shouting matches and name-calling, inevitably “resolved” by insincere hugs instigated by Tom or Amelia.’
The last line of the prologue sets the tone for the course of the novel. Mark and his father have just clashed with police in a violent union protest, a turning point in British history. As Mark stands on an overpass, watching the passing cars and lorries he laments ‘Ah’m thinkin that we’ve lost, and there’s bleak times ahead, and ah’m wonderin: what the fuck am ah gaunny dae wi the rest ay ma life?’
Skagboys is published by Jonathan Cape, London, an imprint of Random House.