'T2 Trainspotting' Is Just 'Porno' Repackaged

by John Burns

16 August 2017

Irvine Welsh’s pacey, gritty, but often daft, follow-up to Trainspotting receives another printing run, but to what purpose?
 
cover art

T2 Trainspotting

Irvine Welsh

(W.W.Norton)
US: Mar 2017

Irvine Welsh, the feted laureate of the gutter ever since the blistering Trainspotting hit the shelves back in 1993, is back with a sequel to that odyssey of debauchery, despair, and quasi-redemption.

Except he’s not. Not really, anyway.

It’s now the best part of three decades since Welsh introduced us to his dysfunctional family of characters, messrs Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Second Prize and Begbie. In those intervening years, the Leith-born author has penned four more installments, culminating in 2016’s The Blade Artist.

Porno, the first direct sequel to the events of Trainspotting, celebrates its 15th birthday this year, and has been repackaged here as T2 Trainspotting, a cinematic tie-in released off the back of the successful Danny Boyle movie released this year. This instantly sets alarm bells ringing: Why now? What’s the point of re-releasing the book with a shiny new cover and title, if not just to cash in?

Admittedly, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The move to republish and repackage feels a little cynical, particularly as the events of the novel and those of the movie are worlds apart. Still, T2 Trainspotting / Porno garnered significant attention on its original release back in 2002, and so it deserves a second look this time around.

We open with a familiar face; Sick Boy, who bounds into the action with all the chutzpah, arrogance and lofty ideas that we’ve come to expect from our old ‘mate’. Sick Boy—or Simon Williamson, as he prefers to be known these days—is working in the London bar scene and trying to shake the juvenile nickname which, he feels, has been keeping him from the big time. Part aspirational businessman, part wheeling-dealing-schemer, part seriously bad egg, Simon Williamson is setting forth a chain of events which will see him riding triumphantly back into his hometown of Leith. The sense of impending schadenfreude is palpable.

Sick Boy—sorry, Simon— might be our access point, but he won’t be our only narrator. Hapless addict Spud is here for the ride too, as is deranged psychopath Begbie, who is about to taste freedom for the first time in a decade after ten years in the slammer. Mark Renton is the fourth narrator—now a successful bar proprietor in Amsterdam, where he fled after ripping off his friends in the first book—while a new and unfamiliar voice provides the last piece of this narrative jigsaw puzzle; that of Nikki Fuller-Smith, a student from England who attends university in the Scottish capital.

As is the way with much of Welsh’s work, the characters speak to us—or at us—in their own, idiosyncratic fashion. Simon and Renton consider themselves educated, elite, aloof enough to be above the heavily accented vocabulary of their countrymen, lapsing only into dialect when rattled or excited. Begbie and Spud, on the other hand, speak a language all their own; a rich, broad broth of phonetics which Welsh splashes across the page, peppered—at least in Begbie’s case—so thickly with expletives it is surprising the paper doesn’t disintegrate before your very eyes. It’s joyous.

Once you get into that Caledonian groove, there’s no getting out of it. It rarely feels forced or contrived on the page—many writers have wrecked themselves upon the rocks of phonetic representation of dialect, but not our Irvine—and you may find yourself uttering a few Leithian idioms yourself. “Eyewis” instead of always, “ays” instead of us, calling everyone “catboy”, or falling victim to some other, less socially acceptable, form of lexical contagion.

Indeed, the use of language is so thrilling, so rapid fire, that it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of disappointment when the narrative shifts back to the standard English of Nikki. This is a shame because Fuller-Smith is arguably the most complex—and for ‘complex’ read ‘realistic’—character to set foot in Welsh’s Port of Leith to date. Confident and self-assured, aware of her own sexuality, but plagued by eating disorders and body dysmorphia, she’s a woman in control of her own destiny but consumed by feelings of obsession and jealousy towards a former schoolmate. Yes, Nikki Fuller-Smith is a truly fascinating character with depth and nuance to explore. If only Welsh had deployed her more carefully, and not sent her over to the French Riviera for a silly and predictable final act, she might have been the story’s saviour.

Because yes, unfortunately, T2 Trainspotting / Porno needs a saviour, and ultimately that saviour was not forthcoming. In 1993, Welsh built us a dark and squalid world, which he then revealed, piece by piece, via a series of curious vignettes—some funny, some sad, some dark and some deeply depraved—all compelling. In 2002, Welsh called up the gang, sprinkled in a few additional ingredients, set everyone on a collision course and stepped back to watch the show. For what should have been a literary treat, the sequel feels a little under-cooked.

It’s not an out and out failure, though. There are some good moments here. Questions of economics and identity, and of social mobility, are raised by Sick Boy looking down on his old mates around Leith, and by Begbie’s furious indignance at being referred to as working class, while themes of sexual power and gender are chronicled, often with disturbing candour, by Nikki, giving the reader a series of uncomfortable ethical dilemmas to navigate. For the most part, these work.

One of the more interesting, and unexpected, subplots, focuses on Spud’s ambition to produce an alternative history of the Port of Leith: “the real Leith, ken, aboot some ay the real characters.” This is Spud’s big chance; his one shot to pull himself up off the pavement, get his life back together, and re-engage with his local community, and we, as readers, find ourselves desperately wanting him to make it work. It’s a nice bit of characterisation, but it’s drowned out by the sad posturing of Sick Boy, by the downright nastiness of some of the other supporting players, and by the just-plain-silliness of the plot in places. A story can be nasty and funny by all means if it’s handled correctly, but nasty and silly is a hard to stomach.

The original Trainspotting was compelling, it was satisfying; T2 Trainspotting—while certainly very readable—is neither of these things. T2 Trainspotting feels like a race from one plot point to another; a breakneck toboggan ride through a chilly landscape that we’ve seen before. When Sick Boy or Renton jet-set between Europe to Edinburgh in the space of a couple of lines of text, we as readers understand precisely how they feel. It’s almost like Welsh doesn’t trust readers to maintain an interest in the plot, and feels the need to hurry us along; or perhaps it’s himself he doesn’t quite trust.

In the mid-‘90s, Irvine Welsh’s was “it”; a bright, smart, dangerous author from north of the border, with the most blistering piece of literature to grace the UK in years still hot from the press. By 2002, he was sputtering a little. His work has gotten better since, certainly, but mid-period Welsh is not his finest vintage. Perhaps this reissue is one best left where it was—on the side of the tracks.

T2 Trainspotting

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