Marabou Stork Nightmares, 1995
The Acid House, 1994
Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance, 1996
Headstate, pr. 1994
You’ll Have Had Your Hole, pr., pb. 1998
Blackpool, pr. 2002 (musical; with Harry Gibson)
The Acid House, 1999 (adaptation of his short stories)
The Irvine Welsh Omnibus, 1997
Even in an age accustomed to hyping first novels as instant classics, the commercial and critical success of Irvine Welsh has been remarkable. Indeed, Welsh was not only one of the most successful writers of the 1990’s but also among the most influential. Welsh did not singlehandedly bring about the Scottish literary renaissance; Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Iain Banks, and Janice Galloway had already laid the groundwork. However, Welsh focused the world’s attention on Scotland, demonstrating how multiform the nation and its literature are and making the publication of Scottish fiction outside Scotland more viable than it had been for decades. Equally important, Welsh ushered in a new kind of fiction directed at the kind of young readers who did not take their cues from the literary reviews and British broadsheets. In doing so, he helped bring about another change, in the way such books are packaged and marketed. What makes Welsh successful and the extent of his influence so remarkable is that it derives from a book he did not actually set out to write. Once it was written, he never thought it would be published, and, once it was published, he never thought it would be read, least of all by the kind of reader for which it was intended.
That reader is the kind of character that populates Trainspotting and Welsh’s other writing: disaffected, young, mainly male no-hopers, drunk or drugged, under-or unemployed, from Edinburgh (or rather from Leith, the docklands area where Welsh was born, or one of the postwar housing estates, such as Muirhouse, where he grew up). Welsh’s Edinburgh is not the city of tourism, with its Castle and Edinburgh Festival. It is the city with an underbelly of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), heroin, and casual violence.
Welsh’s fiction may not be overtly political, but it is nonetheless as connected to Scotland’s political and socioeconomic situation as it is to particular streets, neighborhoods, and pubs. It grows out of the national mood of angry impotence following the failure of the 1979 referendum that would have given Scotland a greater–but still very limited–measure of independence after nearly three hundred years of union with England and more than a decade of the corrosive effects of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the Scottish economy and Scottish working-class values. Having left Edinburgh in 1978 for the London punk scene, Welsh stayed on to reap some of the benefits from the mid-1980’s real estate boom. Back in Edinburgh by the decade’s end, he became acutely aware of, and outraged by, the effects of AIDS and heroin on his class and generation.
Trainspotting is largely the story of five down-and-outers: friends, or rather associates, realistically rendered yet allegorical in a way, each representing a certain kind of response to their collective condition. With its loose plot and structure, the novel creates a momentum that depends more on cumulative effect, fast pace, and montage than on conventional causality and continuity. It is Trainspotting’s raw energy and demoniac urgency, its bleak vision and black humor, and the authenticity with which a nonjudgmental Welsh creates a coherent world rather than a conventional story that gives the novel its immense power.
Praised by mainstream reviewers, Trainspotting also appealed to young readers, especially those active in the club scene, many of whom read the novel only after reading Welsh’s second book, The Acid House. These twenty-one stories and novella demonstrate an impressive range and versatility on Welsh’s part, from conventional realism to punk send-ups involving inversions of various kinds. There is less use of dialect here than in Trainspotting but similar interest in the socially disaffected and disenfranchised. Welsh’s second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, is his most ambitious work, an intricately layered narrative, or interweaving of narratives, in which Roy Strang seeks to come to terms with and to escape his past (especially a violent gang rape).
Since its publication, Welsh’s reputation, if not his place on British best-seller lists, has suffered considerably. Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance was hastily written and then rushed into print to coincide with the release of Danny Boyle’s well-received film version of Trainspotting (1996). Although vastly different in style, the three novellas of The Acid House (one a revenge comedy, the second a revenge tragedy, and the third quite literally a chemical romance) all center on drugs, including the purported benefits of ecstasy and the irresponsibility of pharmaceutical companies that produce legal but harmful drugs such as thalidomide.
Filth, Welsh’s version of the “tartan noir” detective fiction of Ian Rankin, betrays the sentimental streak that Welsh had previously avoided altogether (Trainspotting) or used sparingly and more effectively (Marabou Stork Nightmares). The sentimentality here is all the more glaring because it caps a novel that seemed to many reviewers written mainly to shock its audience. (Many felt the same way about Welsh’s modern version of a Jacobean revenge play staged that same year, the aptly if obscenely titled, You’ll Have Had Your Hole.) Glue, published three years later, is everything Filth is not: expansive, even generous. Like Glaswegian Alan Spence’s The Magic Flute (1990), it follows its four main characters over several generations and offers fleeting, teasing glimpses of the central characters of Trainspotting. Distinctive as his work his, Welsh has proven a surprisingly versatile writer, working in a variety of forms, including stage musical, and an adaptable one; two of his books have been adapted for the screen, four for the stage.