Glasgow gets the run-down on Dead Mens Trousers
For the final event of the Aye Write! Book Festival, Irvine Welsh joined moderator and fellow writer Alan Bissett at Tramway to talk about his new novel Dead Men’s Trousers. 25 years after the release of his breakout debut novel Trainspotting, Dead Mens Trousers has been confirmed by Welsh as the final installment in the Trainspotting series. The central (and admittedly, fairly gimmicky) hook of the novel is that one of the four primary characters the series has followed (Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud) will not survive the finale.
Despite this somewhat shallow premise, there seems to be considerable substance to the novel, at least insofar as Welsh speaks of it. As Bissett mentions to him, this is not the first time he has declared himself finished with the series. When explaining his persevering interest, Welsh reveals a personal attachment to the stories and characters – “they’re a part of [my] life in some ways,” he says – and conjectures that each return to the series reflects a change in his own character and perspective. In particular, he cites Trainspotting, Porno and Dead Men’s Trousers as a kind of thematic trilogy, representing respectively: friendship and betrayal, ego and revenge, and redemption and atonement.
More broadly, however, he believes the series represents what he describes as the “long-term existential crisis of humanity”, particularly in relation to the prolific drug abuse within the books. Drawing from his own drug use – which he admits he has not entirely given up – he explains that the characters’ frequent drug abuse is motivated by a desire to escape from a world they no longer understand – a desire Welsh believes we all relate to. The widespread use of drugs over the past decades signals, in Welsh’s view, a major transition from capitalism to the next economic system. He compares this with the Black Death which he believes represented the transition from feudalism to capitalism, particularly as it related to the development of cities. Drug use – insofar as it allows people to escape into their own mind – hints at the rise of what Welsh terms “conceptualism”, an economic system in which the only property which exists is intellectual property. Thus while he admits the characters’ drug abuse is not healthy, he believes it is a symptom of a wider societal epidemic.
His impressive reflection on the themes of the series seems almost inflated in comparison to the passage he reads from his new novel. The passage follows Sick Boy who, upon learning his son is gay, becomes uncharacteristically delighted, mostly because it won’t undermine his own proclivity for sleeping with women. It’s funny enough – albeit in a very farcical way, and perhaps not executed with much sensitivity towards its subject matter – but mixing dark themes with extra dry humour has always been a well received trademark of Welsh’s style. Even so, the jokes about gay sons and sex seem a slightly absurd contrast to the discussion about the supposed existential crisis humanity faces only minutes before.
This passage alone though is not problematic, but when viewed within the context of Welsh’s earlier comments about the relationship between art and entertainment, it betrays a somewhat patronising attitude towards his readers. Despite his initial assertion that a work of fiction – including his own books – can be considered both, he goes on to state that holding readers’ attention is more important than getting them to “think about things a bit more”. This doesn’t immediately seem objectionable – after all, as he perceptively notes, “a great book that nobody wants to read is ultimately a book that nobody wants to read” – but the assumption that thoughtful material alone won’t engage readers strikes a slightly condescending chord, especially given his previous books such as Marabou Stork Nightmares and Filth experimented a lot with narrative and style, challenging his readers instead of pandering to them. Perhaps I’m interpreting his comments unfairly; I only hope that all Welsh’s talk is in his writing too, as he has certainly hit on the social symptoms of a complex culture shift that are if anything, 25 years later, even more potent.