‘Bizarre circuses of the repulsive and shocking’ – Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh

This year sees Vintage re-release Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy, originally published in 1996, as a tie-in with Rob Heydon’s film adaptation, released last year. Such relatively recent examples of Welsh’s work as 2007’s TV drama Wedding Belles enjoyed, at best, lukewarm critical reception. What criticism boiled down to, essentially, was that, whereas Trainspotting’s blackly comic violence and brutally confrontational style had meaning and substance, subsequent efforts such as Belles have been little more than bizarre circuses of the repulsive and shocking. Which just about sums Ecstasy up.

At first I thought Ecstasy was one long novel, but it’s actually three novellas: ‘Lorraine Goes to Livingston’; ‘Fortune’s Always Hiding’; ‘The Undefeated’. ‘Lorraine…’ is concerned with the events following the stroke of a high profile regency romance writer Rebecca Navarro, whose time in hospital brings her life into contact with that of her nurse Lorraine. We are introduced to a complex web of perverse connections, from Rebecca’s perverted philandering husband Perky to his friend TV personality Freddy Royle, who just happens to be a rampant necrophiliac, and who satiates his appetite via an understanding with the hospital where Lorraine works.

‘Fortune’s Always Hiding’ is a kind of fictionalised Thalydamide revenge story, in which a woman born without arms, as a result of the effects of ‘Tenezadrine’, becomes involved with a militant revenge movement against those who developed and marketed the drug. She solicits the help of a football hooligan in order to achieve her ends.

‘The Undefeated’ is the longest of the three, and focuses on Lloyd, a waster who lives for the drug-fuelled weekends, and Heather, who finds herself stuck in a dried-up marriage from which she has finally found the impetus to escape. There are some moments to clarity and power in the prose where a stark vision of modern Britain breaks through. For example, the following from Lloyd:

‘- Fuck it, special occasion, eh, ah say, to him, as either he, ah, or some other cunt says every weekend as every weekend is, indeed, a special occasion’.

Something about this sums up with clarity the endless and ultimately meaningless monotony of the live-for-the-weekend lifestyle of a lot of young people right now. It’s simple, but it chilled me a little to read it.

These moments of power stand out even more starkly in contrast to the underwhelming prose that makes up the majority of the writing. It is tempting to try to endow the narratives with more significance and meaning than they actually carry. Maybe, I found myself thinking, the dullness of the writing reflects the monotony of the drug-fuelled lives of the characters? Maybe the pointlessness and violence of the characters’ actions is a reflection on the fact that our society does produce people like this? …Maybe? It’s possible. But even if all of that’s true, none of it stops Ecstasy being a bit of a crap read.

Any Cop?: If you like cringing at gratuitous violence and perversity, but balk at good quality prose, this will be perfect for you. There are some moments of power, but they are few and far between, and neither the stories nor the characters are very compelling.

Felix McNulty

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