Porno is billed as ‘the sequel to Trainspotting’, which immediately is a worrying sign, like the blow-up doll that stares out from the front cover. Why is Irvine Welsh returning to the territory of his phenomenal debut after all these years? Does it mean he has run out of ideas? And does anyone really want or need another fix of Sick Boy, Renton, Spud and Begbie, the drug-addled radges who put a largely hidden Edinburgh on the map nearly a decade ago?
These kind of doubts all swirl around as you pitch into Porno. The quotation from Nietzsche that prefaces the book – ‘without cruelty there is no festival’ – adds to the general feeling of advance queasiness.
It turns out to be far from misplaced. There are indeed scenes of stomach-churning cruelty and nastiness to be found, as if Welsh were determined to outdo himself. But it’s also impossible to ignore the wit, the scathing commentary and brilliant dialogue. These, as much as the subject-matter, were some of the things that made Trainspotting such a sensation.
This time round, there are two main drawbacks. The first is the obvious one that much of the sheer freshness of the original has been lost as Welsh himself and a host of pale imitators have been busy ever since. The other is structural. Where Trainspotting was essentially a tightly crafted series of vignettes whose characters overlapped into one coherent novel, Porno is a big, rambling narrative that feels overplotted.
It centres on the efforts of Sick Boy (Simon Williamson) to craft a pornographic movie, Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, with financial help from Renton, the double-crosser who has been making good money in the Amsterdam music scene and is now back in his native Edinburgh. Both are extremely wary of Begbie, the psychotic killer who has been released from prison and is at large on the streets of Leith again.
Begbie, still enraged with Renton for ripping him off in the drugs deal that concluded Trainspotting, once more provides the grimly comic menace and occasional violence that give some edge to the story. His voice, contrasted with the vulnerable witterings and musings of Spud (‘Ah see ma mate Zappa the cat, the one boy whae never judges ays’), is far more compelling than the selfish rants and bragging of Sick Boy and Renton.
The biggest new entry, so to speak – and there is entry aplenty as the seven rides and many more besides are chronicled in rather tiresome detail – is Nikki Fuller-Smith, a young student who is mostly happy to star in the film on which Sick Boy is pinning all his hopes. She never quite convinces, however, stuck halfway between male fantasy figure and enlightened, vengeful vixen.
Otherwise, the changes are mostly to the social backdrop. Cocaine has replaced heroin as the drug of choice; the redevelopment of Leith is continuing apace, putting further pressure on its original inhabitants; global capitalism and pornography are spreading their tentacles ever further. As Sick Boy muses: ‘At long last, through getting a sweaty pile of bodies together and filming the results, I have something to sell, something they value. Something I’ve made.’
If the shagging and snorting soon pall, you at least feel that Welsh’s sense of humour and fondness for the dramatic are always capable of conjuring something worthwhile. Some gems involve non-Hibs fans; others are at the expense of the police. For instance, there is the scam to rob dozens of Rangers supporters by hacking into bank accounts with a 1690 code (the Battle of the Boyne); and plenty of amusing homage to Franck Sauzee, the former Hibs midfielder to whom the book is dedicated.
In short, Porno is terrific in places, sickening or merely mediocre in others. It will make nothing like the impact of Trainspotting. But then it was never going to.