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Trainspotting is the first novel by Scottishmarker writer Irvine Welsh. It is written in the form of short chapters narrated in the first person by various residents of Leithmarker, Edinburghmarker who either use heroin, are friends of the core group of heroin users, or engage in destructive activities that are implicitly portrayed as addictions that serve the same function as heroin addiction. The novel is set in the mid to late 1980s.

The novel has since achieved a cult status, added to by the global success of the film based on it, Trainspotting (1996), directed by Danny Boyle. Welsh later wrote a sequel, Porno, in 2002. Skagboys, a novella that will serve as a prequel, is expected for publication in 2009.

Characters

  • Mark Renton – the main character and antihero of the novel, Renton is the voice of (relative) sanity among his group of friends, many of whom he can not stand. He narrates his daily life – from supporting his heroin addiction with petty theft to interacting with the "normal world" – with a cynical, black-humoured eye. He is capable of fitting in well enough to common society, is relatively good-looking and of above-average intelligence, but is socially inept, and uses heroin as a means to withdraw.
  • Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson – A slick, amoral con artist, and Renton's oldest friend. He is always on the lookout for the "perfect scam", despite being perfectly inept at serious crime. He picks up women with ease and flaunts this quality in front of his friends, often gloating over his many hook ups. By the end of the novel, he has become a pimp of young girls. Essentially, a combination Byronic hero and villain, he enjoys flaunting his ability to use heroin semi-casually, then stopping at will, without developing an addiction. In fact, Sick Boy considers himself above everyone he interacts with in terms of class, restraint, and moral fibre, despite being one of the most shallow and callous characters in the novel. When thinking to himself, he often imagines he is speaking with Sean Connery. While Begbie represents unavoidable, unanswerable violence to the antihero of the novel, Sick Boy represents cold, calculated expediency, the type of life that Renton would have if he had no conscience or moral restraints.
  • Daniel "Spud" Murphy – Naive and childlike, Spud is both the whipping boy and only real source of comfort among his circle of friends; they feel genuinely protective of him, even as they repeatedly mock and take advantage of him. Although very light-fingered, Spud is the only genuinely kind-hearted character in the novel. He has a soft spot for animals. He uses heroin because it feels good; he would not be able to achieve anything but a low position in society even if he was sober and his sense of decency contrasts sharply with the personalities of his friends, whose heroin use is sometimes the least objectionable of their acts.
  • Francis "Franco" Begbie – A violent sociopath, Begbie terrorises his "friends" into going along with whatever he says, assaulting and brutalising anyone who angers him. This violence is reflected in the manner in which he speaks. He is the only one in the group who does not use heroin and, although he considers junkies to be the lowest form of life, he is himself thoroughly addicted to alcohol, amphetamine, and violence. He is part of the YLT (Young Leith Team) gang.
  • Davie Mitchell – The "everyman" of the novel, Davie seems to be the most "normal" of the characters. Unlike the others, he is a university graduate and holds down a decent job. His life is thrown into chaos, however, when he contracts HIV; his experiences with the disease form the basis of the story in the chapter "Bad Blood".
  • Tommy Laurence – A childhood friend of Renton's, Tommy does not use heroin and seems completely content to drink, use speed, play football, and listen to Iggy Pop. When his girlfriend dumps him, he seeks to numb the depression by experimenting with heroin, grudgingly provided by Renton. His resulting addiction weighs on Renton's conscience, and in part provokes him to seriously attempt sobriety. Tommy contracts HIV at the end of the novel.


Minor characters



  • Gav "Temps" Temperly – A welfare worker who is friends with Renton and the other characters.


  • Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin – Washed-up football star turned hopeless alcoholic. His nickname comes from his tendency to start fights while drunk and then lose for the same reason.


  • Billy – Mark Renton's older brother. Billy is killed by the IRA while stationed in Northern Ireland.


  • Lizzy – Tommy's ex-girlfriend.


  • Nina – Renton's teenaged cousin. She dresses in black like a goth, much to the dismay of her family.


  • Alison – Friend of Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy.


  • Lesley – Mother of baby Dawn.


  • Baby Dawn – Daughter of Lesley and Sick Boy.


  • Johnny "Swanny"/"White Swan"/"Mother Superior" Swan – High-level heroin dealer. Used to be a good friend of Mark Renton.


  • Michael (Mikey) Forrester – Low-level heroin dealer. Does a lot of the day-to-day deals with clients of Swanney e.g. in chapter 2, he deals with a desperate Renton.


  • Stevie - Another "normal" part of the social circle, he has a long-term, long-distance relationship a girl who lives in Londonmarker.


  • Dianne - A teenage girl who is one of Renton's few sexual partners. Renton accompanies Dianne to her flat, where he discovers that she is clearly the more experienced partner. Renton wakes up the next morning and groggily meets a couple whom he believes are Dianne's flat-mates; they are in fact her parents, as she is only 14 years old.


  • Alan Venters - An HIV-positive rapist whom Davie hates to the point of obsession (for reasons gradually revealed in "Bad Blood".)


  • Kelly - Renton's one-time waitress/student girlfriend.


  • Sharon - Billy's girlfriend, and the mother of his child


Structure

The novel is split up into seven sections: the first six contain multiple chapters of varying length and differing focus. The novel's origins in short fiction are still visible though no segment or chapter is wholly independent of the others.

Each character narrates differently, in a fashion comparable to stream-of-consciousness or representative of psychological realism. For example, Spud will refer to people internally as "cats" (Begbie is a jungle cat, while he himself is a house cat), and Sick Boy will occasionally entertain an inner-dialogue between himself and Sean Connery. Chapters narrated by Renton are written with Scots dialogue terms spelled phonetically, which conveys the character's accent and use of Scots, while Davie's chapters ("Bad Blood", "Traditional Sunday Breakfast") are narrated in Scottish English with dialogue appearing phonetically. Other chapters are written from a third-person omniscient stance (in Standard English) to cover the actions and thoughts of different characters simultaneously. For example, "The First Shag in Ages" covers Spud and Renton's outing to a nightclub where they meet Dianne and her pal, followed by Renton's return to Dianne's and the awkward breakfast that ensues, all the while revealing what each character thinks of the other.

Unlike the movie it inspired, the novel's plot is not linear. Characters are often introduced without backstory and without any initially obvious connection either to the core group of characters or to the junkie lifestyle.

Plot summary

Section 1: Kicking

The Skag Boys, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mother Superior - Narrated by Renton. Mark and Simon (aka Sick Boy) are watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie when they decide to go buy heroin from Johnny Swan (aka Mother Superior) since they are both feeling symptoms of withdrawal. They cook up with Raymie (who kisses Sick Boy on the mouth) and Alison (who states that heroin "beats any meat injection in the whole fucking world"). After being informed that he should go see Kelly, who has just had an abortion, Renton instead eagerly returns home to watch the rest of his movie.

Junk Dilemmas No. 63 - Narrated by Renton. A short (less than a page) piece comparing his high to an internal sea, while noting: "more short-term sea, more long-term poison".

The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival - Narrated by Renton. Mark initially makes an attempt to come off heroin by acquiring a bare room and all the things he will require when coming down. When withdrawal begins to set in however, he resolves to get another hit to ease the decline. He acquires opium suppositories, which after a heavy bout of diarrhea he must recover from a public toilet (a notable scene recreated for the film) showing just how far a junkie will go for a hit.

In Overdrive - Narrated by Sick Boy. Simon attempts to pick up girls while being annoyed by Mark, who wants to watch videos. Sick Boy loses Renton and launches into an internal self-glorifying, nihilistic diatribe.

Growing Up in Public - Third person narration following Nina, Mark's cousin. Nina is with her family after her Uncle Andy's recent death. She initially feigns indifference but then breaks down without even realising it.

Victory on New Year's Day - Third person narration following Stevie. At a party consisting of almost all the key characters in the novel, Stevie can not stop thinking about his girlfriend who he has fallen out with. They optimistically reunite at the train station following a couple of phone calls.

It Goes without Saying - Narrated by Renton. Lesley's baby, Dawn, has died. Though it appears to be a cot death, it can also have been from neglect. The Skag Boys are uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond to the tragedy as Lesley cries hysterically. However, Simon/Sick Boy becomes notably more emotional and distressed than the others and eventually breaks down and cries as well, stating he is kicking heroin for good and clearly implying Dawn was his daughter. Mark wants to comfort his friend, but is unable to form the words and simply cooks a shot for himself in order to deal with the situation. A sobbing Lesley asks him to also cook her up a hit, which Mark does but makes sure he injects himself before her, stating the action "goes without saying" and proving the harsh truth that no matter what; junk comes first for them all.

Junk Dilemmas No. 64 - Narrated by Renton. Mark's mother is knocking on his door while crying. He ignores her pleas and cooks up a shot. He feels guilty about letting her down, but continues to use drugs anyway.

Her Man - Narrated by Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin. Second Prize and Tommy are in the pub and Tommy confronts a man who is openly punching his own girlfriend. They are shocked to find the woman supports her abusive boyfriend instead of her would-be liberators by digging her nails into Tommy's face, inciting a brawl.

Speedy Recruitment - Varied narration. (third person while together in the pub, first person for each interview.) Spud and Renton both have a job interview for the same job, but neither of them wants the job as they would prefer to be unemployed. Renton pretends to be an upper-class heroin addict, while Spud takes Amphetamine and is incoherent.

Section 2: Relapsing

Scotland Takes Drugs in Psychic Defence - Narrated by Tommy. He goes to an Iggy Pop gig on the same day as his girlfriend's birthday. He spends the entire chapter using speed and alcohol. The chapter's title refers to an Iggy Pop lyric, which Tommy vehemently affirms.

The Glass - Narrated by Renton. Focuses on his "friendship" with Begbie. Renton, Begbie and their girlfriends meet up for a drink before going to a party, but it ends when Begbie throws a glass off a balcony and it hits someone, splitting open their head. After this, Begbie smiles at Renton and proceeds to announce to the party he will find whoever threw that glass before attacking random innocent people in the pub and setting off a huge pub brawl. Renton concludes his thoughts on Begbie saying "He really is a cunt ay the first order. Nae doubt about that. The problem is, he's a mate n aw. What kin ye dae?"

A Disappointment - Narrated by Begbie. Continues the theme of the last chapter. Begbie recalls an ordinary story of being in the pub and staring at a man whom he wanted to fight.

Cock Problems - Narrated by Renton. Tommy comes round to Renton's flat (shortly after Renton injected a shot into his penis, hence the title) after being dumped by his girlfriend. Tommy asks Renton to give him some heroin, which he reluctantly does. This sets off Tommy's gradual decline into addiction.

Traditional Sunday Breakfast - Narrated by Davie. Davie has woken up at the house of his girlfriend's mother in a puddle of urine, vomit and feces, after a night of drinking. Embarrassed, he attempts to make off with the sheets and wash them himself. However, Gail's mother starts tugging at the sheets, he resists, and the contents fly all over the family, their kitchen, and their breakfast. (In the film, this unfortunate event is attributed to Spud.)

Junk Dilemmas No. 65 - Narrated by Renton. Mark has cooked up with Spud and stresses how cold he is. Spud is completely unresponsive and Mark thinks he may be dead, seeming unsurprised if he is.

Grieving and Mourning in Port Sunshine - third person narration. Renton's brother Billy and his friends Lenny, Naz Peasbo, and Jackie are waiting for their friend Granty to arrive for a game of cards, as he is holding the money pot. They later find out that Granty is dead and his girlfriend has disappeared with the money.

Section 3: Kicking Again

Inter Shitty - Narrated by Begbie. Begbie and Renton have pulled an unknown crime and have decided to lay low in Londonmarker. The chapter covers their train journey.

Na Na and Other Nazis - Narrated by Spud, who has managed to kick heroin. He visits his grandmother, where his mixed-race uncle Dode is staying. He recounts the trouble that Dode has had with racism growing up, particularly an event when he and Spud went to a pub and were soon assaulted by white power skinheads saying slogans such as "ain't no black in the Union Jack". This abuse led to a fight, which left Dode hospitalised, where Spud visits him. "I've had worse in the past and I'll have worse in the future" Dode tells Spud, who begs him not to say such things. "He looks at us like I'll never understand and I know he's probably right."

The First Shag in Ages - Third person narration. Renton has kicked heroin and is restless. He ends up picking up a girl at a nightclub, Dianne, and sleeping with her, unaware that she is only fourteen. He is later forced to repeatedly lie to her parents at breakfast the following morning.

Strolling Through the Meadows - Narrated by Spud. Spud, Renton and Sick Boy take some Ecstasy and stroll to the Meadowsmarker where an excited Sick Boy and Renton try to kill a squirrel but stop after Spud becomes upset by their actions towards the animal. He states to the reader that you can't love yourself if you hurt animals as it's wrong and compares their innocence to that of Simons dead baby Dawn. He also notably states "squirrels are lovely and free. Maybe that's why Renton hates them" indicating Mark envies those he feels are completely unbound and free. Mark, in reaction to Spud's distress and disappointment in his actions, is clearly ashamed and Spud forgives him quickly and the pair embrace, before Simon humorously breaks them up by stating they should either "go fuck each other in the trees" or help him find Begbie and Matty.

Section 4: Blowing It

Courting Disaster - Narrated by Renton. Renton and Spud are in court for stealing books. Renton gets a suspended sentence due to his attempts at rehabilitation, while Spud is given a short prison sentence. Renton becomes increasingly despairing at the "celebrations" and the people around him.

Junk Dilemmas No. 66 - An extremely short passage, assumably narrated by Renton. Renton reflects that his heroin hit has removed his ability to move.

Deid Dugs - Narrated by Sick Boy. Using an air rifle, Sick Boy shoots a Bull Terrier, which then attacks its skinhead owner, giving Sick Boy the excuse he needs to kill the dog. He delights when a police officer arrives and informs Sick Boy that he will be recommended for a commendation.

Searching for the Inner Man - Narrated by Renton. An important chapter in which Renton reflects on why he used heroin after seeing several psychiatrists, all of whom have different unrelenting approaches to clinical psychology taken from various 20th century psychologists. Renton's cynicism has stopped him from forming meaningful relationships with anyone, and he is unable to get any enjoyment out of anything. It is also revealed that Renton had a catatonic younger brother who died several years before.

House Arrest - Narrated by Renton. Renton relapses and has to suffer heroin withdrawal at his parents' house, where his hallucinations of dead baby Dawn, the television programme he is watching, and the lecture provided by his father interlink. He is later visited by Sick Boy and goes out to a pub with his parents, who are unnervingly enthusiastic.

Bang to Rites - Narrated by Renton. Renton's brother Billy dies in Northern Irelandmarker with the British Army. Renton, obviously under the influence of drugs, attends the funeral; there, he almost starts a fight with some of his father's unionist relatives, and ends up having sex with Billy's pregnant girlfriend in the toilets. Demonstrating some topicality, Renton discusses the hypocrisy of Unionism, and the British in Northern Ireland (commencing with an internal rant against his father's family, who are largely bigoted Orangemen).

Junk Dilemmas No. 67

Section 5: Exile

London Crawling - Narrated by Renton. Renton finds himself stranded in London with no place to sleep. He tries to fall asleep in an all-night porno theatre, but there he meets an Italian man named Gi, who makes a pass at him. Renton says he's not gay and after Gi apologetically offers him a place to sleep, Renton takes him up on the offer. However, in the middle of the night, Renton wakes to find Gi masturbating over him and his semen on his cheeks and face. Renton reacts violently, but then takes pity on the sobbing old man. He then decides to take Gi to a late night party. On the way, Gi tells him the tragedy of his life - how he had a wife and children who he cared about deeply, yet he could not help falling in love with another man named Antonio and after their affair was revealed the two suffered extremely violent homophobic abuse, leading his lover Antonio to kill himself. At the party, Renton notes sadly how frightened and confused Gi looks and thinks to himself he may end up having sex with him out of pity.

Bad Blood - Narrated by Davie. Davie, now HIV-positive, takes a particularly horrible revenge upon the man he suspects raped his girlfriend and gave her HIV, leading to his own contraction of the disease. Davie befriends the man, and when the man is on his deathbed Davie tells him that he just savagely raped and violently murdered the man's 6 year old son. After the man's death, Davie reveals to the reader that he never actually hurt the boy and the whole story was made up.

There is a Light That Never Goes Out - Third person narration. After a marathon drinking and partying session, Renton, Spud, Begbie, Gav, Alison and others venture out for another drink and then something to eat. Spud and others reflect upon their sex lives. The chapter is named after a song by The Smiths, in whose lyrics Spud finds solace after his failed attempt at making a pass at a woman.

Feeling Free - Narrated by Kelly. Kelly and Alison create a scene in front of a construction site by getting into an argument with some construction workers. They meet some backpacking women and the foursome end up returning to Kelly's where they get high and their new found friends reveal they are in fact lesbians from New Zealand. The girls have a general laugh about and then notice Renton has arrived to visit Kelly. In her high state, she and her friends pick on Renton, who reacts in a surprisingly understanding and gentle manner, taking it with good humour and leading Kelly to appreciate this. However, she ends noting that she feels men are only alright in the minority when they are on their own.

The Elusive Mr Hunt - Third person narration. Sick Boy prank calls Kelly's pub where she works from across the street. He asks her to look for a "Mark Hunt" and only after she has called the name out "Has anyone seen Mark Hunt?" around the pub a few times does she realise how much the men in the pub are laughing at her and how the name sounds like "my cunt" causing her a great deal of embarrassment. Renton is present in the pub at the time and laughing along with the other men at Kelly, until he realises she has tears in her eyes. At first he thinks she is being silly and shouldn't take the laughter to heart, but then he recognises the laughter from the men in the pub isn't friendly. "It's not funny laughter. This is lynch mob laughter. How was ah tae know, he thinks. How the fuck was ah tae know?"

Section 6: Home

Easy Money for the Professionals - Narrated by Spud. Spud, Begbie, and a teenager have engaged in a criminal job, exhibiting Begbie's paranoia.

A Present - Narrated by Renton. Gav tells Renton the story of how Matty died.

Memories of Matty - Third person narration. The group attends Matty's funeral, where they reflect on his downfall.

Straight Dilemmas No. 1 - Narrated by Renton. Renton finds himself at a small gathering in a London flat surrounded by casual drug users. While the others at the party indulge in joints, Renton muses on the idea that they have no clue what true drug addiction entails.

Eating Out - Narrated by Kelly. Kelly is working as a waitress in an Edinburgh restaurant and gets some revenge on some unpleasant customers.

Trainspotting at Leith Central Station - Narrated by Renton. Renton returns to Leith for Christmas. He meets Begbie, who beats up an innocent man after having seen his alcoholic father in the disused Leith Central railway station.

A Leg-Over Situation - Narrated by Renton. Renton goes to see a previous drug dealer, Johnny Swann, who has had his leg amputated due to heroin use.

Winter in West Granton - Narrated by Renton. Renton goes to visit Tommy, who is dying of AIDS.

A Scottish Soldier - Third person narration. Johnny Swann is reduced to begging, pretending to be a soldier who lost his leg in the Falklands War. Swan is quite optimistic and exclaims that he is making more money begging rather than dealing heroin.

Section 7: Exit

Station to Station - Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud and Second Prize go to London to engage in a low-key heroin deal and see a Pogues gig. The book ends with Renton stealing the cash and going to Amsterdammarker. As the movie and sequel, Porno, both imply, Spud is compensated.

Themes

The novel is basically a series of short stories. Each chapter focuses on a given event and does not necessarily contribute to Renton's eventual betrayal. For example, some chapters focus on Renton's sexual morality: in one chapter an old man masturbates onto him while he is sleeping, and in another he has sex with his dead brother's pregnant fiancée in the bathroom after his brother's funeral.

Welsh explores in depth the absence of a true Scottish national identity. Renton displays a great self-loathing of his country, which he views as a nation colonised by the Englishmarker. Welsh suggests that the idealised image of "Scotland the Brave" is a false heritage, a sentimentalised vision of Scotland perpetuated by events such as the Edinburgh festival. Welsh also attacks Unionism through Renton's description of his father's Protestant loyalist family.

However, drug abuse (both heroin and alcohol) is certainly the main issue dealt with. The novel explores what causes drug abuse and what sustains it in its many forms. Many chapters focus on Renton's continual attempts to kick the habit and their accompanying relapses. The novel ends rather ambiguously, with Renton betraying his friends and heading for Amsterdam with money they had all acquired from a drug deal.

The novel refers to bands that influenced Welsh's writing, including David Bowie, Joy Division, The Fall, the Pogues, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, The Smiths, The Stooges and especially Iggy Pop, whom all the characters idolise. Sick Boy's nickname comes from the lyrics of the song "Death Trip" by The Stooges, and also from the character's amorality and sexual perversions.

Interpretations of the title

The title is a reference to an episode where Begbie and Renton meet "an auld drunkard" in the disused Leith Central railway stationmarker, which they are visiting to use as a toilet. He asks them (in a weak attempt at a joke) if they are "trainspottin", as Renton is training a stream of urine against an old stone. Trains have not run to Leith for many years. This is symbolic of the way that Renton searches for inner peace through heroin addiction, where he has not found it, just as there are no trains in the disused station and he treats the area with contempt. The disused station is also symbolic of the stagnant and unchanging life Renton lives in Leith as a heroin addict.


It could also be said that that the idea that pair were trainspotting at an abandoned station refers to what Renton sees as the hopelessness and futility of a typical existence in Leith, an issue that is the basis of the famous "Choose Life" monologue at the beginning of the film adaptation and in a section near the end of the novel. Through the eyes of the central character Renton, much of Leith is trainspotting, waiting in stagnation and hopelessness for a better life that will never come due to the low socio-economic standing of the area and a lack of a strong national identity, with many individuals dealing with this fact through either drugs or violence. As they walk away from the drunk, Renton realises the drunk is Begbie's father.

Stage adaptation

Soon after publication, the book was adapted for the stage. The stage version inspired the subsequent film, and regularly toured the UK in the mid 1990s. This adaptation starred Ewen Bremner and later Tam Dean Burn as Renton.

Film adaptation

The film was directed by Danny Boyle, with an adapted screenplay written by John Hodge. It starred Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner. Irvine Welsh made a cameo appearance as the drug dealer Mikey Forrester. The film has been ranked 10th by the British Film Institute (BFI) in its list of Top 100 British films of all time. It also brought Welsh's book to an international cinema audience and added to the phenomenal popularity of the novel.

Reception

The novel was an immediate success. It was longlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize (and was apparently rejected for the shortlist after "offending the sensibilities of two female judges").

Editions

  • ISBN 0-393-31480-4 (paperback, (1996)
  • ISBN 0-393-05724-0 (hardcover)
  • ISBN 0-7493-2173-3 (paperback)
  • ISBN 0-7493-9606-7 (paperback) (1994)


References

  1. Contemporary Scottish Fictions--Film, Television, and the Novel: Film, Television and the Novel, by Duncan J. Petrie. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2004.ISBN 0748617892. Page 101-102.
  2. Bookworm - The Scotsman - Prequelspotting
  3. Trainspotting British Film Institute (BFI).
  4. The Contemporary British Novel, by James Acheson, Sarah C. E. Ross. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2005. ISBN 0748618953. Page 43-44.
  5. Irvine Welsh - Biography


Further reading

  • Screening Trainspotting Irvine Welsh, by Aaron Kelly. Published by Manchester University Press, 2005. ISBN 0719066514.Page 68.
  • Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting: A Reader's Guide, by Robert A. Morace. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 082645237X.
  • Working-class Fiction: From Chartism to Trainspotting, by Ian Haywood. Published by Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1997. ISBN 0746307802.


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