Porno, for what it’s worth, is a brilliant (if unintended) piece of conceptual fiction. That is, the title, storyline and even the marketing conceit (“the Trainspotting lads 10 years later and worse than ever …”) often do little more than generate empty titillation, offering a loose framework of subcultural signifiers, expected plot twists and stereotypes so that the reader can get a handle on the book’s, er, heft. Familiar grunts, groans, shot setups (not to mention the other shots — heroin, money or otherwise) are all a wicked-piss take on the unintended sexiness and romance afforded Trainspotting’s junkie lead characters the first time around by a pop culture firmly ensconced in a nihilistic binge. As an exercise in form and commentary carried through 480 pages and woven into an occasionally ripping-good yarn, Porno succeeds wildly. It wouldn’t be surprising if Welsh intended it thus — deadpan.
The story finds Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson returning to Edinburgh to take over his aunt’s failing pub after his own career as a hustler in London has likewise met its end. He quickly establishes himself with the local gendarmes as a man interested in riding the wave of gentrification currently washing over his formerly divey hood. That, of course, is a front for his laissez-faire attitude toward the drugs being dealt in the bar. Then, more importantly, there’s his helming of a porno film being made after-hours with some local stag-film amateurs and his new girlfriend (a university student who moonlights as a principled yanker of cranks at a local “spa”).
Of course, this path brings him back in contact with Mark Renton (the anti-hero of Trainspotting), the underdog junkie Daniel “Spud” Murphy and the rest of the gang. But it is the psychopathic Francis Begbie, fresh out of prison and acclimating himself (often comically) to a world of cell phones and Thai food (which at one point he thinks is food served to businessmen, exclaiming, “Tie food!”) that keeps Porno on its edge.
The inevitable unfolds like a train wreck from a distance — production difficulties including broken cast, er, members, extortion of local journalists, marital spats, ruthless violence, lots of fucking and fucking-over and lots of drugs. Hubris is the driving force and once that’s established, it’s all a matter of waiting for “it” to happen, as Welsh sets pretty much all his characters on collision courses with one another — emotionally, sexually, conspiratorially, etc. And he does a fine job at times of keeping the reader’s interest piqued.
If Welsh intended Porno earnestly, it’s self-indulgent pulp with an occasional wicked bite. He offers carny-volume foreshadowing when he should be letting the characters do their sneaky best to keep things undercover.
His rotating “first-person” structure (the principal characters get their own chapters to tell their bit of the ongoing narrative) does deliver an engaging, overlapping, “he said-she said,” carrot-dangling titillation. Giving everyone equal time allows for vibrant descriptions and a genuinely lived-in sense of place (such that you can usually smell the weeks-old beer in the carpet and the choking cigarette smoke). And it allows events to resonate through very different moral, emotional and descriptive filters.
A fine, comic use of this is the near-encounter between dire adversaries Renton and Begbie sitting in adjacent stalls in the hospital bathroom, making a kind of idle chatter, each with a foggy notion that it may be the other sitting close enough to kill.
Elsewhere, we see Spud being brutally beaten from Begbie’s perspective as “doing him a favor” and from Spud’s perspective told as elegiac-cosmic comeuppance as he tries his best to just slip away under the beating, leaving his wife and son something other than a fuck-up deadbeat dad. It’s one of the book’s stunning moments and nearly worth the price of admission alone.
Otherwise, under the weight of the endless narrative, Porno begins to crack and sway for the pressure. But if you keep the mental fast-forward button at the ready and delight in the juicy bits, you can get your vicarious rocks off in Welsh’s world. And that may just be the plan he had in mind the whole time.
Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.