Tobias Carroll | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,284 words)
For many American readers, knowledge of Irvine Welsh came via his 1993 novel Trainspotting. The novel established Welsh as a daring prose stylist with a flair for the transgressive, while the subsequent film adaptation supercharged the careers of many involved, including director Danny Boyle and lead Ewan McGregor. Over the years, Welsh has revisited this world in several other works, including the novels Porno, Skagboys, and The Blade Artist. In each, he’s surveyed how time has changed his characters — and gradually expanded the scope of these books from Edinburgh to something more international.
In his latest novel Dead Men’s Trousers, Welsh has brought this fictional universe to its conclusion. Several of his long-running characters have become fathers of grown children; one of them will not survive to the end of the book. But that’s not the only bittersweet element to be found here: Welsh has set the novel on the eve of the Brexit vote, creating a growing sense of tension in the background even as his characters — including sociopath-turned-artist Frank Begbie and expatriate DJ manager Mark Renton — become embroiled in a cycle of old grievances. At stake is an interwoven pair of questions: to what extent can people change, and to what extent are people willing to allow others to change?
The temporal setting of the novel also allows for some other memorable setpieces, including a number of scenes set around Welsh’s beloved Hibernian F.C. winning the Scottish Cup in 2016. And Welsh, ever the stylist, has also come up with a resonant way of conveying several characters’ experience with the psychedelic DMT: prose pauses and suddenly, the mode shifts into a graphic novel for part of a page. While Welsh has revisited his characters repeatedly over time, each of these books has a distinct feel to it; this one is no exception.
I spoke with Welsh over the phone on a cold winter’s day; an edited version of our conversation follows.
Tobias Carroll: Dead Men’s Trousers strikes me as a more overtly political book than some of its predecessors, in part due to section titles with names alluding to both Brexit and neoliberalism. When you sat down to write it, did you intend for it to be a more political book? Or did that come up as you were writing it and as current events were happening?
Irvine Welsh: I think it came because we’re in a time of great flux now. Nobody knows how everything is going to pan out, but the consensus is that with deindustrialization, we’re heading into almost like a kind of post-wage, post-profit economy where we can’t really monetize things anymore in the same way we used to do. So that throws up a lot of challenges. I think the books from Trainspotting onwards have really been about deindustrialization and the kind of growing redundancy that people feel that they have. And the kind of cruel existential panic as well that we feel, in the sense that we don’t really know what we’re here for anymore, we’ve been replaced by robots, we don’t have a role in an industrial economy as such now. So we have all these sort of issues that we have to kind come to terms with, basically.
When you began to write the book, did you have in mind that it was going to be your finale for these characters, or did that only come up as you began to write it?
I didn’t really plan to write about them again, as such. It was a strange one. I think it came out of the film, Trainspotting 2 movie, with Danny [Boyle] and Andrew [Macdonald] and John [Hodge]. Everybody wanted to know what the characters would be doing, basically, at this point in time. So that caught my interest in that movie.
How much of what they were doing did you have a sense of, at that point?
I think that the worst thing that you have to do is that you have to actually go back to the old books again so you have your sense of the characters, rather than the sense of the actors on screen and on stage, because they’ve become quite iconic in a lot of ways. They colonize your perception of how you see the characters, so you have to go back to the original source material, which is something you don’t really like to do as a writer because you think, I should have written this differently, or I should have done this better. So that’s the main kind of thing, is having to go back to the old books again.
So many people just don’t have enough work, and they can’t make enough money. And other people who can make enough money, they’re just working all the time, they don’t have a chance to enjoy it.
Was there anything over the course of revisiting those that you found that sort of surprised yourself that you had done when you were writing the older books, or that you had to work around as you were writing this?
Oh, all the surprises are when I finish one, [laughs] that’s the thing that’s the real buzz, “Thank God I’ve managed to get this thing done, it’s kind of out of my life now,” you know. So that’s the real thing that kind of excites and interests me as a writer, really.
One of the things that interested me over the course of reading these books and revisiting these books is the fact that several of the characters from Trainspotting have gone on to become artists in their own way, whether it’s Begbie reinventing himself as a successful artist, or even the thread of Spud writing a history of Leith. As these characters get older, they find these unexpected outlets. Was that something that you intended or something that surprised you?
In a lot of ways, not in all ways, but the more kind of clued-up members of the industrial working classes who suffered all this deindustrialization have got a bit of a kind of advantage over some of the more middle-class professions who are just experiencing it now, because they’ve had to cope for longer without any kind of real economy at all. They’ve had to, in a lot of cases, look at other ways, like exploring their creativity and thinking about other things they can get into. So I think that it’s like a lot of stuff has shut down in their lives, and their lives have become smaller, but in other ways, they’re not tied to the factory in the way they would have been if they had still been tied to an industrial economy.
So for most people it’s been a horrible thing and they’ve got nothing. But a few other people have just decided they’re free from it, they can do anything. And I think that happened in a lot of cases with the Thatcher thing. I mean, people like myself, I really hated Thatcher, and I hated the Conservatives. But in some ways, through that malevolence of smashing everything up and just throwing everything we had, [it] pushes you to consider other options, basically. I’d have probably never become a writer if it hadn’t been for that whole horrible era of deindustrialization.
This book has a much more international scope. Is that more indicative of your own experience, between traveling and living overseas?
I think so. I mean it’s not just me, it’s also a lot of people’s experience now. To kind of have any success at all, you have to chase money, you have to chase different markets, you have to chase different cultural experiences, you have to go into different territories and operate, and that takes a lot of time. It places a burden on your life as well, as Renton finds out. And that’s one of the costs of the modern era, so many people just don’t have enough work, and they can’t make enough money. And other people who can make enough money, they’re just working all the time, they don’t have a chance to enjoy it. Both the massive inequity of wealth is also a massive inequity of work, in the way it’s kind of shared around.
I know people now who are just on and off planes all the time. They’re people who are not on huge money and huge salaries, they’re just jumping on and off planes and doing things all over the place and living in Holiday Inns and all that and trying to eke out a living, basically. And so that’s really the kind of riddle of all of this, now, eh?
The novel ends in 2016. Was that something sort of where, as you were writing this, the particular timing relative to both Brexit and the election of Trump here came to mind?
Yeah. I think we’ve seen the ugly side of neoliberalism and the massive disparities of wealth and the exploitation that’s been going on and the growth of power of the one percent. We’re also seeing the horrible side of that nativism, really, the way that people are being penned in and the world’s becoming a smaller place, again. People are trying to make it a smaller place, and set people up against each other, and make people suspicious of each other.
With the whole Trump thing, with the Brexit thing, it just seems that we’re stepping back into a really quite dark era, but without the attending kind of social equality we had in the sixties and seventies, or the aspiration towards that. It’s like we’re getting the worst of globalization and the worst of nativism combined.
So much of what we’re doing now, so much of the politics … is very much based on emotion, and it’s based on a fear that there is this existential threat to us, but we don’t quite know what it is.
Your novel is very dark in places but there are also moments of humor. How do you balance these moments of humor with this genuine concern and this genuine fear for these characters and, in many ways, their children?
Well, I think if you look now at all the art and all the culture and the things that we have, it’s all very much escapist stuff. Most stuff is genre, it’s like superhero stuff, or it’s crime, or it’s thrillers; it’s designed to give us a visceral reaction, but also sort of say, “This isn’t really the real world, the real world is actually a lot more cozy than this.” But the real world isn’t really more cozy. And somebody like me, who forces people to engage with quite dark material, I think we have a responsibility to give people space to be able to laugh at it as well, you know. So you have to have humor, and not just for cheap laughs but as a sort of tension reduction. If you’re asking people to look at stuff that’s quite intolerable, quite dark, even though it’s important people do that, I think you also have to give them space to do that by having sort of a dark, gallows humor in the text.
One of the other real-world events that happens in the book is the 2016 Scottish Cup Final that many of the characters are at. Was that something you had planned to include, or was that a fortuitous moment that came up as you were writing?
It was a big moment. It would be a huge moment in their lives, because it was in everybody’s lives in that part of Edinburgh, basically — in North Edinburgh, and other parts of Edinburgh, and basically Scotland. But it was a big catharsis for a community that had almost got to a point of not believing they could achieve anything, and they did rally, people did rally around the club.
It served as a practical device because it was the only thing that could have really brought those four guys back together. They probably wouldn’t have gotten back together for any other occasion. And so I think that was the purpose of it.
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Are there works of fiction or film or music that you feel are doing an interesting job of engaging with the current political or economic situation?
It’s strange, because I got asked to write some liner notes for Iggy Pop’s album Zombie Birdhouse, which is an old album from 1982 being reissued. And I started to listen to the lyrics, and it’s funny when he’s talking about nativism and imperialism and a kind of globalized culture and media that’s soundbite-based and all that. I thought, “God, this is kind of very much ahead of the curve, really,” and not just musically, but in terms of what he was actually writing about.
And these are rock n’ roll lyrics, you know what I mean, these aren’t pop lyrics. So I think you do find these kind of things, you do find people that almost have this way of predicting something through looking at something emotionally. And I get that a lot from music. With music you can tell a whole story, but you also have to nail an emotion, basically.
I think that so much of what we’re doing now, so much of the politics, the way people react and everything, is very much based on emotion, and it’s based on a fear that there is this existential threat to us, but we don’t quite know what it is. Rational or scientific people are saying it’s to do with global warming, it’s to do with all this, the way we’ve poisoned the planet and are continuing to do it, and we have to stop doing this. But the wealthy people who want everything are saying, no, it’s nothing to do with that, it’s to do with people who are different, whether they’re more educated and condescending and superior, or whether they’ve got different colored skin, or whether they come from different countries, that’s the problem, that’s the real threat to us. And unfortunately a lot of people are buying into that nonsense.
To kind of keep on the subject of music, at the end of last year you mentioned that you were working on an album. Do you have any news on that?
Yeah, we’re gonna have it out in May, I think. We’re just finalizing the arrangements of that. It’s been great fun, we’re actually pressing on with the second one now.
The guy Steve Mac that I’ve worked with in Brighton has just been one of the best guys I’ve ever collaborated with. He’s just absolutely fantastic, and I’ve never had that in music. I’ve had it in film and TV with Dean Cavanagh, and for years and years I’ve been looking for a kind of Dean, but in the music sphere. And I just found him by accident with Steve, so it’s great. I’ve actually been really enjoying doing music again and I’ve been going into it in a much bigger way than I’ve ever done before. So that’s been a great thing for me, it’s been a really revitalizing thing.
How did you two first meet?
It was at the Amsterdam Dance Event, through mutual friends, talking about what kind of music we were into and what was floating our boat and all that. And, turns out, we were very much on the same page when we talked about that. Danny Rampling’s a mutual friend and DJ, and the three of us got together and said “Let’s do a track together,” so we did a track that we were really pleased with. Steve and I just decided, well, let’s carry on and do an EP. Then we got a few tracks down and went right into that, and we just pressed on further, and we had an album. So it all came together really well, really organically, and it’s been fabulous fun.
You’re comfortable with other people the way they are, and you don’t really want to see them change, because in a way, it’s not so much that it’s really threatening to you, but it disturbs your space.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the way that when various characters take DMT, it shifts into comics. How did you get the idea to do that to represent that kind of state of being?
Well I thought that, people are doing DMT — I mean, I’ve done DMT myself — and it is a very astonishing experience, it’s a very life-changing experience, I suppose. I was a militant atheist until I did DMT and now I’m not so sure. It opens up so many questions in terms of who we are and where we come from and past lives and future lives and that kind of stuff. So it’s quite an amazing drug.
I think that we’re looking for the answers of humanity, and we’re as likely to find that in inner space with drugs as we are finding it out in outer space with technology. It’s a very, very ancient drug, and so much of the imagery from the DMT trip has formed the basis of so much of our modern religions, like Christianity. The Last Supper imagery comes from DMT, basically, taken by pre-Christian tribes. So there’s a wealth of knowledge there that we in the West have really snubbed and appropriated and oppressed and all that. I was always quite cynical and skeptical about these things, and I still am in a sense, but there’s definitely something there worth exploring.
There’s moment towards the end of the novel where Begbie is frustrated because he has, in his own way, moved on with his life, but he’s still dealing with the pull of people expecting him to be who he was. Do you feel like that taps into an artistic frustration as well, that there is that sense of people not letting anyone grow beyond who they used to be, even if who they used to be wasn’t particularly appealing to them?
I think it’s a natural thing, really. I think we all do that, I mean I do it myself. You’re comfortable with other people the way they are, and you don’t really want to see them change, because in a way, it’s not so much that it’s really threatening to you, but it disturbs your space. For me, it’s very comforting to go back and think of my pals all being the same. But they’re not. Nobody stays the same, basically.
There was another line early on, “Death often serves to bring somebody’s good qualities to the fore.” Did you feel like this was a book where you were consciously aware of these characters’ sort of good and bad qualities and how that sort heightened perception of their mortality altered how they were perceived?
The interesting thing about when you’re writing characters is you don’t really see them as good or bad. They are tools, they’re there to do a job; they’re there to tell the story and you put them in service of that, really. So yeah, I’ve never really seen them as good guys or bad guys.
Did you have any kind of sadness when you finished this book, as the final go-around for these characters, or are you excited to do something that kind of charts some very different space going forward?
Yeah, you try not to be sentimental about it, but they’ve been with me for so long that you do kind of get attached to them. But again, you can’t really think of them as real people, you have to think of them as tools in service of the story you want to tell. I feel that I’m going to be coming to the end of that story or coming to the end of their usefulness in their ability to tell that story.
I think there might be room for one or two of them to pair off together and have some kind of adventure but I think that as a dynamic kind of force, a group of them, they’ve probably had their day. But you never know.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky