Irvine Welsh emerged in the early nineties as an author able to adeptly combine Scottish vernacular, overlapping storylines, and raw pulp fiction sensibilities in order to capture the imagination of Generation X. In his newest work, If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, a collection of four short stories and one novella, Welsh proves that he is still able to deliver entertaining characters, albeit within generic plotlines.
The four short stories are really what reveal the strengths and weaknesses of Welsh as a writer: stripped of Scottish vernacular and the space requirements for entwining plotlines, one is left with dime-novel plot structures that rely on shock tactics and predictable twists. Welsh’s debut novel Trainspotting was essentially a collection of short stories itself, yet there he was able to tie in recurring characters and plotlines, all the while introducing the seedy side of Edinburgh to the literary world. Here, he is capturing snapshots of foreign scenery: three of the four stories are set in the United States, and the fourth involves English expatriates in the Canary Islands.
One cannot help but notice that all the short stories take place in hot and dry settings, contrasting the usual cold and wet Scottish landscape. Nevertheless, Welsh still makes an attempt to capture the vernacular of his characters, pulling off believable interpretations of various American, as well as English accents. The characters and stories are also very entertaining, even if they appeal to the reader’s most obscene sensibilities. For example, the collection begins with “Rattlesnakes,” the story of three friends whose car breaks down on the side of the road after having gone to the Burning Man festival, only to be found by illegal Mexican migrants who force them to commit devious sexual acts. The story combines blood, cum, poison, and sexual frustration into a witty but ultimately cheap tale of mistaken identity and revenge.
Welsh himself admits to enjoying Jane Austen and George Eliot – writers who are known for complex plots and nuanced characters. Why then, does Welsh bother with hackneyed, pulp narrative tropes? One suspects that Welsh is deliberately restricting himself to familiar pop culture frameworks. The plebeian nature of Welsh’s characters speak to his minimalist, realist approach to art. Welsh’s characters are realistic because of their simplicity, making him a filthy version of Charles Dickens for the 21st century.
The collection contains a jewel in the novella “The Kingdom of Fife.” Set in Scotland, the story revolves around two main characters, Jason King, a near-midget ex-jockey and Jenni Cahill, a young Goth equestrian. The two characters are brought together by their mutual hatred of Scotland and love of Spain, ostensibly mirroring Welsh’s move to writing on hotter and drier climates. The novella resembles Welsh’s early work, and just like Trainspotting begins with some of the most incomprehensible Scottish vernacular put to print. Welsh is able to balance the obscene and the absurd without resorting to the fantastic. Take for example an instance where Jenni wakes up to find she’s stained her pants, only to have Jason comment later, “Apart fae thon wank wi the cum splatterin across the tight buttocks ay thon stretch black troosers, ah wis the perfect gentleman.”
However, the novella is not without its faults: many of the pop culture references seem just a bit dated, with references to Futurama, 50 Cent, and Marilyn Manson. Not to say these are no longer part of our pop culture; it just seems that Welsh has put them to print after they passed their pinnacle of popular relevance.
One cannot review an Irvine Welsh novel without discussing the issue of using phonetic writing to recreate vernacular pronunciation. One finds that phonetic transliteration prevents the reader from reading passively, and the dialogue is tight and entertaining enough to never disappoint. Essentially, by providing a new interpretation of the English language, Welsh prevents the reader from recessing into a generic reading voice, creating a unique place in the reader’s mind for the characters. Overall, If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work is a pyrrhic victory for Welsh. It speaks to the curt and filthy language of a new generation of readers who grew up with the internet, yet loses its originality in that it matches rather than expands on that tradition.
Irvine Welsh’s If You Liked School You’ll Love Work is available in a Random House trade paperpack edition for $25. The book is 325 pages long.