Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Book Review - 'Porno', by Irvine Welsh





Trainspotting, for those who have read it (or, seen the film), was a work of fiction that did not seem to require a sequel. Sure, the ending left the future fate of its cast of characters more than a little ambiguous - but, that seemed deliberate. Mark Renton, the flawed 'hero' of the previous novel, made a clean break with his old life, and with his old friends. He had made a decision to finally kick his drug habit for good - and, he left Scotland determined to 'choose life'. It was an oddly uplifting sort of ending - the reader did not need to know the details of Renton's life, but could be content with the thought that he would actually manage some measure of success and happiness. For a while, too, it seemed as though Irvine Welsh himself agreed that the story of these characters was over. But, in the end, Welsh did feel a need to return to the characters that made him famous. And, now, we have Porno - a direct sequel to his first novel, published in 2002.

Mark Renton once again acts as the central protagonist of the tale. He has spent the last few years living happily in Amsterdam - running a club that he was able to purchase with the money that he stole from his former friends at the climax of Trainspotting. He has no interest in in any sort of reunion - and, is understandably uncomfortable with the idea of ever seeing Begbie, in particular, again.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Sick Boy has also moved on. Like Renton, Sick Boy has also tried to leave that old life of drug-addled apathy behind - and, his current dream is to establish himself as a successful business man. Sick Boy has found himself the owner of a small pub, thanks to an unexpected inheritance. Naturally, though, that isn't quite enough for Sick Boy - and, his current plans, as the novel opens, is to invest in the production of an amateur pornographic film.

Begbie has been in prison since the botched drug deal that ended with Renton taking all of the money and running at the end of Trainspotting. He is due for release soon, though - an event which few people who know him are looking forward to.

Spud, meanwhile, seems to have become increasingly isolated from his old friends as he continues trying to finally kick his long-term drug habit. He has found some sort of hope in his new plan to research, and write, a book about the history of Edinburgh, though.

The novel's cast is rounded out with the inclusion of Nikki Fuller-Smith, a young university student who works in Sick Boy's pub - and, who finds herself drawn into the seedy world of amateur pornography when she is cast in Sick Boy's film.

A chance encounter leads to a reunion between Sick Boy and Renton - and, perhaps motivated by some lingering trace of guilt, Renton ultimately allows himself to be convinced to invest in Sick Boy's film. It is just an unfortunate coincidence that Renton's return to Scotland happens to take place at around the same time as Begbie's release from prison.

Things start off pretty well - and, for a while at least, it seems as though Porno will be able to maintain that same balance of bleakness and dark humour that made Trainspotting so fascinating. The early revelation that Sick Boy had been sending anonymous packages of gay porn to Begbie, while he did his time in prison, certainly struck as perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the previous novel. But, the balance starts to shift the further in you go. The fact of the matter is that Porno simply isn't as funny as Trainspotting was. Perhaps this was intentional. Perhaps stripping away the humour was necessary in order to allow the reader to see these characters as they really are. Or, perhaps, the events of this novel simply didn't allow for that same level of dark humour.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the lack of humour to take some of the edge off leaves you with a very bleak, and occasionally genuinely uncomfortable, story of awful people doing awful things to each other. Trainspotting managed the tricky task of making some of these characters oddly likable (as characters in a work of fiction, at least. Even at their most entertaining, there is not a single one of them you would ever want to meet in real life) - but, in Porno, their various character flaws only seem to have grown worse with time.

Despite all of this, though, Porno still manages to be oddly, and uncomfortably, fascinating. If you finished Trainspotting wanting to know more about these characters (and, really, you should read Trainspotting before you touch this one), then Porno will give you exactly what you want. Though, you should also prepare yourself - if you struggled with the subject matter, and some of the content, of Trainspotting, then you are not likely to have an easier time here.

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