Books

Irvine Welsh
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Will Self has announced that the novel is dead. And, he adds for good measure, this time it’s for real. The last rites have been passed over Gravity’s Rainbow, Finnegans Wake, and even Tristram Shandy, a few decades after the novel got started. But this time around there is no single killer app, the novel that ends them all.

Rather, says Self, the literary novel, the genre that tries to mesh complexity of character with complexity of world, has lost all capacity to impose a vision, because the cultural space from which it could speak is gone.

The sheer omnium of media and text has created a continuous space in which the degree of separateness the novel required to impose its world is harder and harder to achieve.

Self is too smart to see this as an entirely unwelcome development, or to believe it marks the end of civilisation. He’s beyond the default setting of know-nothing cultural conservatives who blame the internet for decline and fall, unaware that the novel itself was blamed for exactly that not much more than a hundred years ago. He cites the flooding of the music market as a good thing, noting that the days when second-rate pop was foisted on a teen market by a tight cabal of songwriters/producers are long gone, and a good thing, too.

Perhaps, in suggesting some analogy with the literary field, there is the ghost of a guilty conscience. Self is a writer of great short stories that he turns into bloated novels, presumably out of a mixture of artistic drive and financial need.

With The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, Irvine Welsh confirms his membership of that less-than-exclusive club – once-challenging writers who have acquired facility in place of their depleted capacity for creating confronting material. In the process of creating a rollicking Miami Gothic tale of reality TV, body horror and elite art, he inadvertently illustrates Self’s argument – that the literary novel is routinely outstripped in its effects by the multiple layerings of mass culture.

TSLOST (in the mass cultural idiom) begins as a monologue by Lucy, an unusually self-aware personal trainer, living and working in the ultimate bimbo zone, Miami’s upscale South Beach. Lucy’s days are a tirade of scorn on the undisciplined and obese around her, such as new client Lena Sorenson, an artist who has stress-eaten herself into waddling obesity. Lucy’s tirades are supplemented with calorie counts, and a surging, emotion-free sex drive that male writers love to give to hot female characters.

The action takes place in a country transfixed by the drama of Annabel and Amy Wilks, conjoined twins who’ve spent their whole lives on TV, and have now hit puberty and want to start dating. The twins’ media-saturated existence hangs like a pole star over the narrative, as things get complicated.

Lucy has found fame as a “good Samaritan”, saving two male hobos from lethal assault in an act filmed by her client Lena. Later, it appears that both men are predatory paedophiles, better off dead, and Lucy is copping public blame for their crimes. She decides it’s Lena’s fault and, further enraged when the latter fails to live up to her exacting training schedule, Lucy chains Lena up in a vacant apartment, holding her captive while she gets down to a perfect weight.

Amid all this, there is rape, a line-crossing relationship with her crime-writer father, an axe murder, hot lezzo sex and a lot of every type of body fluid.

The narrative opens out into multiple voices, from Lena’s “pages” – the self-improving words she must write each morning – to email exchanges with a reality-TV producer, to passages from her father’s novel.

As for the twins, everything ends with multiple crossovers, coming to a resolution that is symmetrical without being in the least bit convincing, even within the book’s crazed logic. Nor, more important, is it very satisfying.

Which is appropriate, maybe, because dissatisfaction is very much Welsh’s subject matter. Trainspotting, his first and only really good work, was a new and radical view of heroin, as neither romantic accoutrement nor scourge of hope, but as a half-good answer to Thatcher’s Britain, to being Scottish, to the boredom of being alive. The Trainspotting gang moved in and out of addiction and use, neither enslaved to smack nor mastering it, a compulsion without depth, as the title suggested.

Sex Lives explores a similar subject of our relationship with a substance, in this case that quintessential American compulsion, carbs. The novel’s easy symmetry is driven by the mirroring of Lena and Lucy, and the tragic conjoined Wilks twins, but its real obsession is the “sweet, salty, fatty” drug of McDonald’s, ambrosia and poison, and its sway over America, more real than the ecstasy of loving sex.

The trouble is, Welsh has nothing more to say about that than the reality TV shows and 24/7 media that form his subject matter. The scenes of chaos and squalor cannot compete with those dodged up or implied by the contrived encounters those shows present as reality. The novelisation of such moments adds nothing, except a high-culture premium, and the reader cannot but feel lectured to about the bleeding obvious.

The loose ends are tied up like any cheap thriller, and more perfunctorily. It’s this that leaves the reader feeling that nothing much has happened that they could not have done themselves.

Welsh loyalists will not be disappointed, as the success of a half-dozen of his last efforts attests. The rest of us may be left wondering if Will Self hasn’t got it right, and that Welsh’s latest effort suggests certain things the novel can no longer do.  XS

Jonathan Cape, 480pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "Irvine Welsh, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins". Subscribe here.

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