Porno

I have gained a great deal of mischievous glee from telling people that lately I have spent a lot of time reading Porno. Responses to my confession have ranged from amused laugher to uncomfortable embarrassment. Upon telling this to my sister-in-law, she awkwardly wondered if I meant that I had been studying scholarly commentary on pornography. “No,” I answered. “I’ve just been looking at page after page of Porno.”

Everyone seems relieved when I go on to explain that Porno is the title of Irvine Welsh’s nearly 500 page sequel to his book Trainspotting. This, apparently, makes things more respectable, though if they were familiar with the book’s content, they might still be prone to blush. Porno is filled with explicit scenes of drug use, violence and descriptions of just about every kind of sex act that you could imagine. If books required ratings, it would earn an NC-17.

Porno is the source material for the recently released movie T2: Trainspotting, although the actual similarities between book and film are very slim. Both pick up the story of Renton, Sick-Boy, Spud and Begbie after the events of Trainspotting, but whereas the film rejoins the characters about 20 years later, the book takes place about 10 years after Renton has ripped off his buddies. The film highlights Renton, the most likable of the characters, while the book focuses more attention on Sick-Boy, perhaps the least likeable of the crew, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Simon. And while in the book the plot is driven by Simon’s plan to make and market a porno movie, in the film it is his plan to open a brothel that is central. Overall, the film and book are more different than they are similar, with the film, I think, being the superior piece of work.

The main failing of Welsh’s novel lies in how scattered and disjointed its episodes are. It is not that the book is uninteresting or boring, but rather that there are too many threads that never get tied together or fully resolved. While in the film all of the various stories have a purpose and place in the overall plot, in the book many of these same story lines are initiated, but then go nowhere, getting dropped as if they were unimportant. And this is disappointing; particularly in the case of Spud, whose failed effort to write and publish a history of Leith is transformed in the film into a really fascinating subplot that reveals important aspects of Spud’s personality, Begbie’s personality, and even, perhaps, the personality of Irvine Welsh himself. In the film, Spud’s writing project is not a history of Leith at all, but appears to be the beginning of what will eventually become the book Trainspotting. In this it is suggested that it is Spud (and not Renton) who is Welsh’s real alter ego. In Porno, nothing comes of Spud’s writing, and this intriguing subplot just fizzles, as does the subplot having to do with Renton’s troubled relationship with his Dutch girlfriend, Begbie’s inner struggles with his masculinity, and Dianne’s struggle to complete her dissertation. The film does a better job of tying up the various story threads by eliminating the superfluous ones and more deeply developing and tying together the really interesting ones.

I do love the fact that Porno begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Without cruelty there is no festival…” This gives us an initial philosophical articulation of Welsh’s literary strategy, which is to explore and celebrate his characters by following them through the gutter, taking cruel joy in describing their participation in acts of debased sex, substance abuse and senseless violence. It is all of these things that I want in a novel about my favorite Scottish hooligans. But now that they are in their 30’s, there is a danger that they might start to grow out of their old ways. Awareness of growing old is one of the major themes in Porno, but we soon find that despite the characters’ recognition that they are no longer kids, their general patterns of behavior have not really changed. Sick Boy is still a schemer, a drug addict and an exploiter of women. The only difference is that now he fancies himself an artist, who uses his charms to make “erotic” adult entertainment. Begbie, who has just been released from prison for manslaughter, is still a thug who thinks himself superior to heroin junkies, even though his addiction to violence is perhaps even more destructive than his friends’ substance abuse. Spud now has a son, but he still cannot break his drug habit, even though it is ruining everything. All of these characters have, in a sense, started to experience the challenges of adulthood (career, prison, fatherhood), but they seem not to have learned anything, and so they endlessly repeat their past mistakes in ways that are at once revolting and hilarious. And this is precisely why I feel personally drawn to their stories. I take perverse pleasure in laughing at them, while also sympathizing with their struggles and rooting for them to overcome their defects, even though I know that they won’t.

Renton is the most sympathetic of the group, and in both the book and the film he seems to be the only one who has matured to any degree at all. He has moved away from the UK, starting a career overseas, kicking heroin, embarking on a program of physical exercise and developing a concern for his health. It soon becomes clear, however, that even in his case, he can’t resist the temptation of being drawn back into the seedy world that he fled from. He once again becomes entangled in the schemes of Sick Boy, he can’t turn his back on the self-destructive Spud, and ultimately he can’t resist the urge once again to scam his pals out of money. All the while, he anxiously tries to avoid running into Begbie, who wants to murder him.

It is the absurdity of it all that is both so funny and disturbing. I, for one, sympathize with many of the anti-establishment sentiments of the central protagonists, and in reading Welsh’s book, I find a bit of myself reflected in the histrionics, the dramas, as well as in the proclamations and smug decrees made by the book’s characters. At the same time that I see hypocrisy in each of them, I’m reminded of the same hypocrisy in myself as well. For instance, Sick-Boy’s closing monologue, as he sits next to Begbie’s hospital bed, sent a shiver of self-recognition through me:

I believe in the class war. I believe in the battle of the sexes. I believe in my tribe. I believe in the righteous, intelligent clued-up section of the working classes against the brain-dead moronic masses as well as the mediocre, soulless bourgeoisie. I believe in punk rock. In Northern Soul. In acid house. In mod. In rock n roll. I also believe in pre-commercial righteous, rap and hip hop. That’s been my manifesto. (p. 483)

In reading this I tremble in self-serious accord; and then I am reminded that not only are the characters laughable, but so am I.

There are some of us who criticize the pointlessness of capitalism and of consumer culture while still participating in patterns of behavior that reinforce empty and meaningless excess, indulgence and consumption. “Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, speed, poverty and media mind-fucking: capitalism’s weapons of destruction are more subtle and effective than Nazism’s and he’s powerless against them,” (p. 384) Renton says of Spud at one point. But he is really talking about himself and all of the rest of us who express antiestablishment sentiments while still participating in ways of life that are no less absurd than anyone else’s.

People are trapped, as Renton says, “consuming shite that does them no good at all, often just because they can.” (p. 408) The “shite” he is referring to could be drugs, porn, consumer products, poetry, literature, violence, movies, fame, power, a career, or a family. The absurd tragedy of it all is that even though nothing is all that important, you have to do something to fill up the time that you are alive. Heroin or fine wine? Porn or fine art? Punk rock or symphony orchestras? Anarchy or totalitarianism? Communism or Capitalism? The freedom to choose is endless.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? (Trainspotting, 1996)

Edinburgh

By the time the train arrived at Waverly Station in Edinburgh, I felt like shit. My throat was burning, my sinuses were blocked and if I tried to walk for more than a few minutes, a Edinburgh Castlewave of fatigue overcame me. I feared I was coming down with the flu, despite getting a vaccine before leaving for sabbatical. I hoped it would all pass sooner rather than later. The fact that I was booked into a very nice hotel gave me hope that I would have the chance to relax in luxury for the next two days as I recuperated.

My nephew is the manager for a chain of restaurants in Scotland, and he was able to secure a couple of complimentary nights at the Waldorf Astoria for me in the city center of Edinburgh. I have never stayed in such a high-end hotel in my life; and absent my nephew’s kindness I would never have been able to afford to do so. When I arrived in my room, I was amazed by the view. Edinburgh Castle sat framed in my window like a scene from a postcard. That night, the same scene was illuminated by colored lights, like something out of tourist brochure.

I was sick, but I was also in Edinburgh, so I did not want to waste my time. After lying down for an hour or so, I felt strong enough to venture out of my room and into the streets. I had visited this city a few times before – as a child, and with my mother and with my wife on two separate occasions a few years ago – but this time I was looking at the place with special eyes. I wanted to get some sense of how this Scottish city differs in atmosphere from Glasgow. With a limited amount of time, and depleted physical vitality, I decided to set off to visit a couple of locations that I had never been to before: David Hume’s grave and Calton Hill.

Scott MonumentWalking down Princes Street, one thing immediately becomes clear: there is no mistaking Edinburgh for any other place. Unlike Glasgow, which is in large part nondescript in its appearance, Edinburgh is distinctive and unique. First of all, there is the castle, sitting atop a hill overlooking everything else. Dating back at least to the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle is located in a commanding position. It is impossible to ignore. Additionally, there are spires everywhere. As you walk down the street, they punctuate the skyline, like jagged rocks on a mountainous terrain. The most imposing of these spires is the Sir Walter Scott Monument, built in memory of one of Scotland’s most treasured literary figures; the author of such classics as Waverly and Ivanhoe.

HumeMonuments to, and statues of, literary figures are to be found everywhere in Edinburgh; and this is another aspect of the city that makes it quite unique. I don’t think I have ever been in a city where artists and writers are so central to the spirit and identity of the place. In addition to Sir Walter Scott, there are monuments and statues dedicated to Robert Burns, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith, and of course David Hume, the great Scottish skeptical philosopher who is one of my heroes. Why his statue depicts him bare-chested and adorned in Greek robes is an anachronism that mystifies me, but the fact that his image occupies a prominent place on the Royal Mile is nonetheless exciting.

Hume's GraveHume’s resting place is in Calton Cemetery, which sits toward the opposite end of Princes street from the Waldorf Astoria. By the time that I had made the approximately half mile walk, I was already beginning to feel poorly. Nonetheless, here I was, in the place where the remains of the author of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding lay buried! The inscription on his grave, like the Greek robes on his statue, is puzzling. It reads:

Behold I come quickly. Thanks to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.

Hume was a notorious atheist, so this inscription definitely seems out of place. Perhaps those left behind had a need to tame the radical nature of the dead philosopher’s ideas, making them less troubling and more palatable to the mainstream. That could also be the reason for the robes on his statue. After all, isn’t that what philosophy is all about; being Greek and dead?

NeedleAs I walked away from Hume’s grave, I looked downwards and saw the first of a series of discarded hypodermic syringes that, as it turns out, litter the cemetery. I immediately thought of the book Skagboys, the prequel to Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. In that book Renton, the junkie main character has anal sex with one of his girlfriends somewhere around here. It seems that this place is, indeed, a magnet for junkies. How much more depressingly appropriate could it be that they choose to shoot up in a graveyard? Exploring further, I was alarmed to find a discarded cell phone with its battery removed lying near one of the crypts. This, I realized, was probably not a good place to be walking alone unless I wanted to get robbed, so I hastily made my way back onto the street and started up the road to Calton Hill.

Calton Hill 1David Hume’s presence is still felt at Calton Hill. There is a “Hume Walk,” established by the philosopher in order to encourage the people of Edinburgh to get some exercise; ironic since Hume himself was quite fat. The walk winds up and around the hill, leading to the top where there are panoramic views of the Calton Hill 2surrounding landscape. From one side you can view Arthur’s Seat, a picturesque rocky mountain that juts up above the city. From the other side you can view the old town, and in-between you can see the Firth of Forth and the new town. The top of the hill is also adorned with a number of monuments, including a Greek styled temple and a building in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson.

SkinsAt this point the battle taking place inside of my body was starting to reach a fever pitch and I had to find a place to sit down, so I started back down the road, stopping for a bottle of water and a muffin before heading back to the hotel. Along the way, on Princes Street, I passed a Dr. Marten’s store displaying a set of quite interesting advertisements. As part of an ad campaign focused on the notion of “standing for something,” there was a poster depicting a middle-aged skinhead couple engaged in leisure-time shenanigans. It struck me that this was the kind of ad campaign that would not work in the US. First of all, the man and woman in the ad look as if they are well into their 40’s. Second, they are skinheads; a subculture that does not have the most positive reputation. Third, the woman is flipping off the photographer. In the US, this is the sort of gesture that is routinely blurred out on TV. I like the fact that Dr. Marten embraces the tradition and history of the brand, but I also find it surprising (and a bit disappointing) that skinheads can be used for marketing. But then again, I guess things are different here in Scotland.

I ended the day with a veggie burger and an early night to bed. When I awoke the next morning I felt doubly terrible. My throat was even more irritated and I was blowing gobs of green mucous out of my nose. I felt worn out. I decided to eat some breakfast and then take a walk to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where I could wander around at a relaxed pace.

Hanging BodyIt was a short, rain-soaked walk to the museum, and upon arriving I was greeted by the none-to-comforting message “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE.” This was spelled out in lights on a scaffolding that sat on the lawn in front of Gallery Two. As if to put visitors’ minds at ease, the message “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” appeared in lights on the front of the building itself. I wandered around the exhibit of surrealist art, enjoying some of the works by May Ray, Duchamp, Dali, Max Ernst, and Picasso, before crossing over into the gallery’s other building where I found myself completely mesmerized by an Redexhibit of work by Louise Bourgeois. The works on display were both paintings and sculptures, but all seemed to focus on themes concerning the anxieties of embodiment. Hanging, black headless bodies dangled from the ceiling like dead sacks of flesh; a giant metal spider occupied an entire room; caged, screaming, red faces greeted visitors in another room; and sculptures of amorphous body parts appeared elsewhere. The mood was dark, anxious and Freudian. In my sick and fragile physical state – blowing my nose, coughing and feeling as if my own body was betraying me – this exhibit really struck a chord.

It was beginning to snow when I left the gallery, and I was feeling close to physical collapse, yet I could not resist walking around Dean Cemetery, which occupies the lot right next to Gallery Two. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with graveyards that has never abated. I find them sad, peaceful, sobering and ultimately comforting. The idea that everyone must die is reinforced by seeing the graves of all sorts of people next to one another:  the rich and famous as well as the obscure. Everyone dies, and while this is an idea that is certainly disturbing, it is also helps me to realize that death is an inevitability for which no one is responsible. It is not a punishment or an indication of what a person has done wrong, but a biological inevitability. We all have to die in one way or another and in this sense, none of us is alone. We are all in it together. Dragging myself along, coughing up green phlem, alternately shivering and then Gravebreaking out in a sweat, I had a moment of clarity in that Scottish location. I occupy a body, as did the junkies, skinheads, philosophers and artists who have lived and died in Edinburgh. No monument or work of art can rescue us from our personal mortality, but they can help us to remember the fate that we share as human beings.