Book #31

Filth by Irvine Welsh

With the festive season almost upon him, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is winding down at work and gearing up socially - kicking off Christmas with a week of sex and drugs in Amsterdam. There are irritating flies in the ointment, though, including a missing wife, a nagging cocaine habit, a dramatic deterioration in his genital health, a string of increasingly demanding extra-marital affairs. The last thing he needs is a messy murder to solve. Still it will mean plenty of overtime, a chance to stitch up some colleagues and finally clinch the promotion he craves. But as Bruce spirals through the lower reaches of degradation and evil, he encounters opposition - in the form of truth and ethical conscience - from the most unexpected quarter of all: his anus.

I truly believe this is the ugliest and most twisted novel Welsh has ever written. I've read it many times, and I have been more disgusted with each read. It's a confusing train wreck of a novel, one which makes you feel sleazy for even opening, but one which is worth it for the more contemptible of us.

Robertson is an anti-hero. Welsh presents him in a horrible way, a complex way, and a way in which begs the question whether Robertson is the monster or the victim. The novel begins with our narrator being given to us on a plate as a typical sexist, racist, homophobic, sectarian, close-minded white male. But slowly, we come to recognise Robertson's flaws as products of experience, lifestyle, and abuse, and this presents some old existential questions. At times I, wrongly, admired Robertson for his unapologetic evil, and ways of getting round people. He's a genius. At times he made me sick.

Welsh uses one of the most bizarre narrative devices I have ever seen. Robertson develops a tapeworm, which crawls its way on to the pages in a typical worm shape. The voice of the tapeworm begins simply by begging Robertson to eat, but the longer the worm talks, and presumably the older and wiser it gets, the more the worm interprets its host. We're given Robertson's background and family life, and things begin to fall into place. This type of narrative has been slated by many, but I feel it works. Robertson comes across as a hard, solid man; stronger than you, wiser than you, better than you. But the worm speaks from inside of him, and this proximity to our narrator, this 'I am inside you' feeling, means that we trust this parasite's words of wisdom. It's a really strange feeling, and odd to read, but it's clever, and wonderful. The tapeworm shows us that Robertson is very unreliable narrator, and gives us his most repressed memories to feed on as though we were the worm.

I decided to read the novel again as the film adaptation will be in cinemas at the end of the month. It looks absolutely brilliant, and I have really enjoyed the trailers. The promotion I've seen so far, however, seems to be glamourising the filth aspect of the novel, more than anything else. Welsh doesn't do this with his writing; the sex, drugs, racism, language, violence, and everything that contributes to the depravity of Bruce Robertson, all contribute to his descent into madness, and his slow disintegration. There was nothing sexy about it; it was all sad and pathetic. I'll be interested to see how this is interpreted by Jon S. Baird, however hearing James McAvoy say, "turn ma gas oaf" will make up for any cinematic distortions.

This book is a hard pill to swallow. I'm not easily offended, and have a pretty strong stomach, so all I really wanted was a shower after reading a chapter, however I can completely understand how this could seriously offend typically rustic readers. That said, typically rustic readers shouldn't be picking up a Welsh novel in the first place. Anyone I know to be reading this blog should be picking this up. Sláinte.