After the triumph that was his last novel, Skagboys, it was always going to be difficult for Irvine Welsh to follow it. To put some distance between the two books he sets his latest, The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins, in Miami, the second of his novels to be set in the US after 2008’s Crime. Welsh, who now splits his own time between Scotland and the US, recently claimed that how he lives his life depends on which country he finds himself. In the US he embraces the healthy lifestyle of his neighbours, but on his return to Edinburgh he heads to the pub to rejoin the regulars. Could it be claimed there are now two Irvine Welsh’s? Of course not… You may be able to take the boy out of Leith, but it’s obvious that you can’t take a desire to shock and shake things up out of Welsh, and I’m not sure we would want to.
I think of Irvine Welsh in a similar way I do Brett Easton Ellis; there are flaws evident in their writing, in certain novels almost fatal ones, but as writers they are always worth reading. The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins is a classic example of this. There are times when you lose interest in the central story, especially when the plot moves away from the here and now lives of the central protagonists, Lucy Brennan and Lena Sorenssen. It is their extremely odd couple relationship which is the foundation of the novel, and these two are Welsh’s most three dimensional and believable female characters to date.
That’s not to say that there are not passages which are troubling, particularly with regard to sex. Welsh has never managed to write sex scenes which do not have the whiff of the exploitative or the pornographic about them, something else he shares with Easton Ellis. He doesn’t seem to involve the reader, simply asks them to watch, and as a result such scenes are neither believable nor erotic, and, although not the case with The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins, they can be simply horrific (although, I’ll admit that may be his aim at times). If you compare the sex scenes in The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins with those in Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room, both deal with central characters who pick up strangers for one-night stands, and feature explicitly portrayed sex, but the former’s scenes often read like letters from a reader’s wives page, while the latter’s add another layer to the central character, creating an individual whose sexuality is central to their identity. The difference may appear subtle, but it isn’t.
Away from the bedroom, Welsh does manage to make the outrageous believable, not an easy thing to do. If you consider most of his novels, there will be sections where you’ll think ‘that would never happen’, then you read the paper or listen to the news and realise that real life will always top fiction. Welsh is a writer who deals in extremes, and while events unfold you never think that this relationship between Lucy and Lena couldn’t happen, in fact you rack your brains to think if you’ve heard tales of something like it already, and there’s every chance you have.
The synopsis for the book states that The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins deals with “the twin obsessions of personal training regimes and real estate”, and that is partly true, but it doesn’t give the full picture. Welsh is concerned about the increasingly transient cult of celebrity, with the Siamese Twins of the title being America’s current example of this. Their soap opera plays in the background as Welsh’s tale of obsession and desire unfolds elsewhere. Being on TV and in the newspapers gives people worth in the eyes of the world, and having worth, and how and where you gain it, is what this novel is all about.
This isn’t Welsh’s greatest novel (but then that’s some pretty stiff competition), but it’s not his worst either, and what I feared would be an exploitative examination of female stereotypes draws you in by making you feel sympathy for both central characters, even when their actions are either reprehensible, or simply weak. The end comes too quickly, and is a little too neat considering what has gone before, but that doesn’t dull what is a sharper examination of modern life than you may expect from Welsh. As always, I look forward to what he does next, and that’s probably as clear an indicator of how highly I view him as I can give. Like Bowie, Kelman and Allen (Woody, not Keith) he is one of those artists whose work I will always return to, and while experience suggests that the new may not match the old, there will always be one or two reminders of why they meant so much to me in the first place, and there are times when that’s good enough for me.
Here’s the man himself talking about The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins at 8.45 in the morning! He has changed…