Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

trainspotting

I’d read this novel many many years ago, and I probably liked it even back then, but I don’t think it blew my mind as much as it did now. It must have been good to read Trainspotting as a young innocent smart-ass rebel, but – for me – it’s definitely a more shattering experience to read it when I’m not so young, not that innocent and not that big of a rebel anymore (I’m still a smart-ass, that one hasn’t changed).

I have no idea how Irvine Welsh knows this much about addiction (everyone’s an addict, allegedly, and recently I’ve been having lots of conversations with people about addiction and dependency, and I wonder whether there’s a significant difference between me being addicted to smoking, someone being a food junkie, someone else being a shopaholic, and someone else being addicted to computer games – and I don’t think there is – there are only surface differences – in that some forms of addiction are more accepted, some are less, some addictions ruin your life somewhat faster than others, and some addictions allow you to tell – seemingly – funny stories about them, while others don’t), about the hopelessness of things and about not giving a fuck about them, about rotting away and selling yourself out, about the secret romanticism of addiction, about the impossibility of change, about laughing at your pain, about the feeling that you will never ever have this (something, anything – normal this or that – life, perhaps) so you pretend that you wouldn’t even want that, and despise everything normal and scornfully laugh at anyone who dares to assume that perhaps you’d want that something, after all.

I won’t go looking into Welsh’s biography now because it doesn’t matter how he knows all this – it’s enough that he definitely understands it deeply: the massive self-deception and self-hate of addicts; the way how it always starts out as a game – why wouldn’t I try this, I’m smart, strong and in control, and I can do whatever I want; the fact that addiction is a wonderful way to fill time and while you’re deep in it, there’s no need to think and do anything else, which is awesome.

I sense the sarcasm in my voice but I’m not sure at what or at whom it’s directed at. Sometimes I wonder, for example, how many minutes a day I spend smoking, and I realize that if I didn’t smoke, besides being healthier and having more money, I’d also have a lot more time – but what would I do with all that time? Would I read one more book in a week? Would I watch three more films or would I translate two more of those things I translate? But – why would I want to do that?

And I don’t even live in the 1980s in forgotten and rotting Leith but in the 2010s in a very friendly and nice town where things don’t actually look hopeless. And I’m not even talking about heroin addiction, only about the relatively simple and innocent addiction to cigarettes – so if I multiply my feelings and my experiences with addiction by a thousand, then perhaps I can imagine how the characters of this novel live, and can imagine the things they do and the way they don’t give a shit and mock everything.

And it’s frightening and brilliant, by the way, when Welsh/one of his narrators starts to talk about all kinds of serious topics, for example, when Renton talks about the psychologists and social workers and other helpers who all wanted to rehabilitate him, and goes on to analyze himself in a deeply self-ironic fashion, and then I feel how my relatively good-girlish mind, always looking for explanations and always trying to gain understanding, soaks up Renton’s words with hope and enthusiasm, secretly thinking how there must really be such a connection that Renton’s a junkie because his relationship with his brother was like this and that, and because this and that happened to his other brother – my mind keeps clinging to the idea that there must be an explanation, and if there’s an explanation, then there must be a solution, too, when in fact there’s no automatic explanation, no automatic solution, and no, there’s absolutely no causal link between vegetarianism and heroin addiction, either.

I didn’t remember Trainspotting was such a dark novel. And I didn’t remember, either, that it’s such a funny one (I didn’t go into this but it’s extremely, laugh out loud funny). And I didn’t remember, either, how it’s full of perfect, precise and cutting sentences, such as this one, which perfectly sums up in 12 words what it feels like to be addicted to something.

„Ah came fir a pint, but ah might jist git pished yit.”

Problems by Jade Sharma

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I kept wondering while I was reading this novel whether there are other novels about drug addiction and kicking the habit out there that feature a female protagonist.

A couple of examples about alcoholism came to mind immediately, but none about drug addiction, and as Maya, the protagonist says once when she compares her drug habit with her husband’s alcoholism, drinking is much more accepted socially than doing drugs. Add to this the fact that drinking is much more accepted when it’s a man who drinks, so if you think about a woman doing drugs, then it’s something truly and absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable.

I’ve never read about this topic before through the eyes of a woman. If I bring up my memories about drug novels, they usually only feature females in minor roles, for instance, there might be some junkie whores in a drug novel, or something like that. And who would think that those junkie whores are also persons? They are.

There’s Maya here in this novel – a female addict who’s initially still on the surface of things despite being a junkie (in fact, I would argue she’s way above the surface: she has her own flat; she has an extremely patient – though alcoholic – husband; and she even manages to hold down a job), still, the problems are just waiting to happen, and when the problems come, they come from all directions at once: Maya suddenly finds herself in the face of a marital crisis, a job crisis, and an increasingly loose control over her addiction.

And it’s interesting here, whether her problems arise because of her addiction, or whether her addiction was an answer to the problems in the first place (or a way to run away from them). My guess is the latter because Maya’s troubles started very early in her life, and if I want to simplify things (a lot), they arose because Maya never learned to exist alone, and she’s never had the chance or ability or desire to develop an individual personality. And from all this you can get (not necessarily in a straight line, but in a weirdly logical line nevertheless) to the concept of always depending on something – be it a husband, a lover, drugs, or useless but at least still living parents.

So in the end it seems to me that this is in fact not a drug novel, but a feminist novel; all the addictive behaviors and dependencies displayed here are only symptoms, and the real question is how to learn to be a separate – well – independent person if you’re a woman (and whether it’s possible at all).

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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Recently I’ve started to wonder how and why fiction works. Actually, I first started to wonder about this about 20 years ago, when I first joined the adult branch of the county library and without any proper transition period after children’s books, I started to read books which probably weren’t at all appropriate for my age, and which soon shook my naïve, childish ideas about how books are and can be written.

Several years passed since then, but through all those years, it has never occurred to me to try to look up the answer to the question of how fiction works online. A while back, however, in a free moment, I tried what happens if I ask Google how fiction works. It seems the question intrigues others, too – turns out there’s even a book with this title, by James Wood.

As I had further free moments at my disposal, I looked up this book – could it be the one that answers my big question? Could it be a good read for me, perhaps one fine day when I don’t feel like reading fiction, but I feel like reading about fiction. (It’s impossible for me not to feel like reading about fiction.)

So I read an entertaining and gently sarcastic review about Wood’s book (this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html?_r=1), which convinced me that I probably won’t (and don’t want to) learn the answer from James Wood. But – the author of this wonderful review happened to mention this book by Denis Johnson, claiming it’s a messy masterpiece. I’ve never heard about this book or Denis Johnson before, but my curiosity was immediately kindled. I happen to love messy masterworks a lot.

And now I’m so glad because Denis Johnson’s slightly connected short stories didn’t only blow my mind (I kept re-reading the stories even while I was reading the book), but they also taught me a lot about how fiction works. Or rather: I learned (again) that lots of things can work in fiction, and that there are no rules. Which is pretty encouraging.

Like I said, these stories are connected, but only in the sense that they take place more or less at the same place and same time, and they are all narrated by the same person. The narrator is nameless, but we learn that he’s known as Fuckhead to his friends. And we learn a couple of other details about him: that he’s in his twenties, he’s an alcoholic and a heroin-addict, that he is married and has girlfriends on the side, that he doesn’t refrain from aimless, unplanned violence (he doesn’t have plans and goals, anyway, and in most cases, he only thinks about violence), that he’s completely lost in the world, and that he has a heightened sense and appreciation of beauty. And – indirectly, and hopefully – we also learn that most probably he managed to survive his wild years, because sometimes he writes in a way that suggests that he’s looking back from a more mature age to the period when the non-stories take place.

The non-stories are centered around simple and/or brutal events, start in medias res, and usually end in nothing (and nothingness). In one story, for example, the narrator accompanies his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, and then takes the train to travel up and down in the city because he has nowhere to go. In another story he runs into an old drinking buddy who offers him a bit of work – so they go and steal the cables from an abandoned house, and then go on drinking with the money they made. And in another one the narrator and his buddy decide to split from the hospital where they work, and they go for a drive around the city, kill (a rabbit), save lives (the lives of bunnies, for example), get lost and see angels in the September snow – but then it turns out that the angels are, in fact, the shadows of actors on the screen of an open-air cinema.

How and why this is good – I have no idea. Words are put one after the other in a way that it’s good. I think – literature is like this, at its best.

But I can’t rest – how and why is this good?

Perhaps it’s good because of its shamelessness. These short stories are shameless. Drunk or drugged up hallucinations; paranoid fear of the real nature of things; melancholy musings about the sadness and unknowability of the world; the wild desire for beauty; the hopelessness of the days where all you do is wait for happy hour; the feeling of youthful invincibility; absolute helplessness and lethargy; unexpected tenderness and equally unexpected cruelty – these are all here, simultaneously. And all these are here as a matter of fact. No need for explanations. No need for apologies.

And this is one reason why it’s good. Because of the lack of explanations. The temptation to explain things away, to be logical and consistent is hard to resist. Johnson resists, which is awesome. Here it’s quite possible that in a moment of extraordinary tenderness you’re cradling little bunnies on your belly, making plans to feed them with sugary milk until they grow up – and then in the next moment or hour (perhaps after a drugged blackout) you find that you fucking forgot about the bunnies and accidentally crushed them to death.

I’m amazed by this – that Johnson dares to be just as fucked up as his narrator. That here it’s not a question of life versus literature, but literature equals life.

Which is, by the way, not always sad, miserable, and tragic. From time to time, this book is extremely funny, and not just from time to time but very often it’s beautiful and poetic.

And, again by the way – Denis Johnson is the writer who can capture whole lives in a single parenthetical clause:

(through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a – wham, the noise and dark dropped around your head – tunnel)

And being a devoted fan of parenthetical clauses, this is one more reason I feel deeply in awe of him.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

dry

There are stories about addictions and the way someone overcomes them that I believe, and there are stories I don’t. Interestingly enough, the stories I don’t believe come more easily to mind because they always make me angry – magical-kitschy tales about wonderful recoveries make my blood boil.

When it comes to this book, I believe what Augusten Burroughs says. Which is, again, interesting, as Burroughs used to work in the advertising industry: in the period covered in this memoir he made a living by making the shittiest products and ideas attractive, and selling them. And he claims he was such a star in his job because he applied the basic principles of marketing to his own life, too, and he mastered the art of fooling people. Burroughs is an expert in self-marketing, and this talent is evident in this book, too. Dry is well-written, affecting, exciting, tense, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes extremely heart-breaking. Of course it’s quite possible that it’s all just an advertisement, and I’m sure there are details in the story that only serve the purpose of making the product easier to sell, still, I feel this book is emotionally and mentally genuine and authentic (as opposed to, for example, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which is supposed to be an autobiographical story about overcoming an addiction, and which is basically a fairy tale).

Dry is about the time when Burroughs was in his twenties, and he worked at a marketing agency. He was creative and successful, he won awards for his work, and he made good money, too. All the while, he slipped deeper and deeper into alcoholism, and at a certain point he faced to choice of either going into rehab or losing his job. During his 30 days at rehab, Burroughs goes through all the usual steps of a recovering addict: first he denies that he has a problem with drinking and he tries to delude everyone (including himself) by saying that drinking a little too much can happen to anyone; then he admits that he’s an alcoholic (it comes as major revelation to him when he’s asked to list how often and how much he drinks – as he says, he had never before calculated what his alcohol intake amounted to); and towards the end he starts to enjoy his sober days, but he keeps worrying what will happen when the therapy is over and he once again gets back to his old environment – he says he can’t imagine how he’ll spend his time if he’s not allowed to drink anymore.

It seems the therapy is effective, and Burroughs remains sober for a long while after he checks out of rehab, but in the meantime, things keep happening in „real life” – things Burroughs used to tackle by drinking, so the book doesn’t end by saying that from now on, Burroughs will remain the model of sobriety all his life. It’s possible that he’s become such a model since then, I have no way of knowing. But I admire Burroughs for not stopping by saying simply: „I’m out of rehab, I’m sober, and from now on everything will automatically be nice and simple”. Instead, he goes on to talk about what comes after sobriety, and about how it feels to be (and whether it’s possible to remain) sober.

By the way, as regards its contents, this is a pretty horrible book, but fortunately Burroughs never loses his sense of humor, not even when he talks about the most dramatic and unsettling incidents. And his humor is delightful: light, sarcastic, self-mocking – it reminds me of the humor of David Sedaris.

And let me just say in „rehab-style” (according to which you must communicate what something means to you, how something makes you feel, and how you can relate to something, and avoid judgment, advice, and criticism): I can relate to a whole lot of what Burroughs is saying, and I know or feel a lot of his feelings and fears.

Finally, I don’t think this is a self-help book, nor is it a book to force (or scare) people into facing their addictions – I wouldn’t push this book into anyone’s hand saying: you must read this, and you’ll immediately stop your drinking, drugging, whatever. This is a book about Burroughs, it’s his story, and while it’s obviously fictionalized to some extent (which doesn’t bother me at all) in its essence, it’s very real.