‘The ugly truth of exactly who we are’ – The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh
In his latest novel, Irvine Welsh has shifted from the male-dominated drug dens of Leith that made him famous, to an alpha-bitch fitness trainer in South Beach, Miami. Indeed the leap in setting, in and of itself, is truly arresting. But just scratch beneath the surface… The character, Lucy Brennan, not only exhibits a familiar ‘hardness’, but on close examination she shares the DNA of a proto-classic Welsh character: being wired up in a way that is fundamentally defective, and yet, utterly irresistible.
The story launches on a twist of fate (no spoilers here), one which throws together the trainer with her unlikely ‘siamese twin’, Lena Sorenson. Obese and weak, the latter is the proverbial rabbit-in-headlights, who personifies every physical, mental and emotional trait that disgusts the primary protagonist. Lena engages Lucy’s services to help her lose weight, before a second, unexpected twist softens the boundaries of the trainer-client relationship, allowing Lucy’s professional interest – despite her ongoing revulsion – to spill over into ‘obsessional’. Crucially the twists are natural, and thus believable, which makes the tension they engender, palpable: Welsh’s words fizz and burn with energy.
The two main characters are perfectly sculpted foils. As meek as Lena is, Lucy is the archetypal hunter: alert, calculating, appetite never satiated; uncomplicated by remorse. Moreover, the coarseness of her tongue and her quick-wittedness, make the reader feel like a spectator at a blood-sport – shocked and yet gripped, in a way that a safer environ could not possibly replicate. It’s crude, hot, vulgar and irreverent, but not in a smut-for-smut’s-sake way – this is intellectualised scatology; scatology made into high-art. Furthermore, the vernacular of each character, however small, is pitch perfect. Welsh has nailed the voices of Miami: the street hustler, the black dude, the gay fashionista. Even when the arc of the evolving story slows, one barely notices, as the characters per se are so damn entertaining.
But the real strength lies in the slow, entangling of the two protagonists. Lucy is a 33 year old woman staring with silent dread, as the sun slowly sets on her youth. And when her curve unexpectedly falls, she channels her anger, as well as her belief in herself as a trainer, into getting Lena to lose weight. Tiring of her slow progress, Lucy’s determination galvanises and she lures Lena to an isolated and empty block of flats, and chains her up. It’s a brilliant device, allowing for a sudden change of pace and style, as Lena goes ‘cold turkey’ on sugar. For Welsh fans, the section bears a resemblance to the rehab experiences of Mark Renton – Irvine Welsh’s most famous character, and a heroin addict. Suddenly all alone, the release of Lena’s bottled-up fear and self-loathing, approach the trance-like beauty of Renton’s reflections on skag – it’s incredibly powerful, and arguably, more prescient. And as Lucy learns more about her, seeing beyond the ‘beached whale’ to a holistic human being, a symbiotic relationship takes shape. The way in which it develops, with Lucy oscillating between her continued revulsion for Lena’s physical self, alongside her growing interest in the 360 degree person, is storytelling of rare power.
Welsh has created 3-D, living, breathing individuals, whom the reader will both love, and be repelled by. The protagonists’ thoughts and actions shift overtime, and even contradict, in a way that can only be described as ‘human’.
Any Cop?: Welsh’s grist is, and always has been, to show the ugly truth of exactly who we are, with breath-taking beauty. And in that, he remains peerless.