Thursday, 2 August 2012

Trainspotting: Breaking the traditions of fiction and getting away with it

TrainspottingTrainspotting by Irvine Welsh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been talked about so much that I'm not going to do a standard review. Instead I'm going to write about my reaction to it as a writer.

Like many great books, Trainspotting succeeds partially because it breaks so many conventions yet still manages to keep you turning the pages. There's a common consensus among contemporary writers that you shouldn't write in heavy dialect. This, they say, slows the reader down and risks disengaging them from the text. The first few pages of Trainspotting are pretty heavy going with all the Scottish dialect and slang, but Irvine Welsh is a good enough craftsman that I got used to it after a time. The dialect also lends a certain unfamiliarity to the whole thing, as if we've stepped into a different world. In a sense that's true, because the world these petty thieves and junkies inhabit is very far away from the one most of us are familiar with.

Another writer's myth this book shatters is that short story collections don't become bestsellers. Although marketed as a novel, Trainspotting is actually a short story collection. Some of the stories were previously published in various magazines. The stories hang together well with their shared cast of charactes, although there are a couple of outliers that, while good reading in and of themselves, aren't really crucial to the main narrative.

Another myth buster comes with Welsh's characters. Writers are always saying that the characters have to be likeable, or at least have a few redeeming qualities. I could find nothing likeable about any of these folks except for one female character who only appears in two tales. The characters were, in fact, so unlikeable that they drew me in and I couldn't stop turning the pages.

Trainspotting is a modern classic that shows that there are no rules in fiction, only traditions. Welsh is a great enough writer that he can shatter these traditions and still be embraced by mainstream readers.
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