by Irvine Welsh
Published by Jonathan Cape
469 pages, 2001
Buy it online
The Scheme of Things
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
The Celtic slum-inspired prose that seemed fresh with Trainspotting and The Acid House and still somewhat riveting by the time we got to 1998's Filth is beginning to feel a little tired in Irvine Welsh's latest novel, Glue. In fairness, however, as I read I kept wondering: what is it that's changed here? Is Glue truly a less interesting story? Or is it me that's changed? My eyes and the experience I bring to things? After all, Trainspotting was published around the time Nirvana was going supernova out of their Seattle garage. We're talking grunge here, boys: down and dirty. By the time we got to Marabou Stork Nightmares, almost everyone on the planet who would have read that book out of the gate was either wearing Doc Martens or contemplating the purchase of their first pair. The era was raw and dirty and questing. But that was then. Witless terrorists notwithstanding, the new millennium is a kinder, gentler place. Or maybe it's just that with all of the ugliness going on in the world around us, who the hell needs it in literature? I'm not campaigning for a brigade of Brontë write-a-likes to come crawling out of the woodwork, but grit for grit's sake seems about as fresh in 2001 as Céline Dion. Both things have their place, it just isn't here.
In Glue, Welsh revisits the well-trod ground of the Edinburgh housing projects: known as "schemes," they spawned both the author and the soul of many of his tales:
It seemed like the entire tenement building hissed and shook as the whistling drafts of cold air shot through, leaving it crying, creaking and leaking, as if it were a lobster thrust into a boiling pot. Those high-pressure blasts of dirty chilled wind from the gales outside gatecrashed relentlessly; via the cracks in the window frames and under the sills, through the vents and the spaces between the floorboards.
Glue, like many of the Irvine stories that have come before it, is peopled with the hopeless in a world where good things -- truly good things -- can only happen to other people. Oppressed by a vicious class structure and the poverty they were born to, Welsh's characters, even in relatively upbeat moments, are redolent with the stink of their shared upbringing. With so little hope for a better life -- and what would a better life look like, anyway? -- their existence is a rat's treadmill of drugs, alcohol and looking for pussy. One character, Johnny Catarrh, sums all of these thoughts up quite well near the end of the book. Here he has made an impossible conquest: a self-destructive American rock star bent on slumming:
It would be too much hassle to tell her that she was in a part of Scotland where sharing dreams was a bit like sharing needles; it seemed a good idea at the time but it only served to fuck you up. Besides, he wanted a ride. He turned to her and their lips met. It was a short stagger to the mattress and duvet, Catarrh hoping that by the time they got there his passion would be such that bedding down in the stale crumbs and spunk of a student wanker would be an irrelevant consideration.
The title refers to the glue that binds the friendship of four schemies: Billy, Juice Terry, Carl and Gally. We meet them as children in the 1970s when the schemes are new and the world is optimistic. We check in with them every decade and watch, as though from the sidelines, as their hopes are sucked away with their youth. The schemes almost become a metaphor for the dual losses of idealism and vigor.
Those who loved Trainspotting take note: not only does Glue drip with the same dank and almost unthinkably profane humor as Welsh's first book, several Trainspotting characters make cameos in Glue, preparing, perhaps for Welsh's next outing. Porn, due out in the middle of 2002, is being talked about as a sequel to Trainspotting and features many of that earlier book's characters.
Glue is not Welsh's best book and certainly not his freshest. However, what is fresh about Welsh is his mind and his ability with all types of prose when he lets himself move beyond the area that spawned him. I'll wager that the best book is yet to come. Glue just seems like more of the same. | November 2001
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe Magazine.