By Irvine Welsh
By John Glassie
(Swing Magazine, October 1998)
"At last," reads the jacket of Irvine Welsh's Filth, "a novel that lives up to its name." This is no lie, and perhaps no surprise. Ever since Trainspotting, the debut novel about a group of heroin addicts that gave Welsh a movie deal and major fame, the Scottish writer has been rubbing himself up against the unclean underbelly of society. Filth is filthy. Filth is mean. And, in very dark but inventive ways, Filth is funny.
With Bruce Robertson, a detective working on a racist Edinburgh murder case, Welsh takes the comic anti-hero to a new low. I mean that in a more-or-less good way. Robertson's debauchery, corruption and total lack of hygiene, not to mention his problematic skin condition, give him few if any equals in all of literature:
"I am itching and I need to inspect my genitals. This fuckin rash is getting worse....I scratch and dig at my thighs and scrotum. I'm thinking some hoor might have infected me."
But this is not the kind of thing that stops the coke-snorting cop from, for instance, blackmailing an under-age girl into giving him oral sex after he finds her with Ecstasy. Or from any number of other despicable acts.
The only match for this deceitful, abusive and, let's be fair, scum-sucking parasite, is an actual parasite: In a stroke of perverse Welshian creativity, the author plants an unusual tapeworm in Robertson's bowels; it "eats into" the narration from time to time to ponder things thusly:
"To be quite honest, there is not much to do around here. So I am thinking that it might not be a more fruitful way to spend my time trying to learn something about the Host? Why not!"
The tapeworm begins to reveal how this sick bastard got so sick, and Robertson himself starts to reap what he sows. And we discover that Welsh has a little more on his mind than a decorum-busting comic romp -- although perhaps not too much more: He makes an attempt to explore the causes of racism, misogeny, corruption and greed, but his heart just doesn't seem to be in it.
The thing is, that's okay. There's something to be said for this filthy novel; it shows us just how low humanity (we) can sink. Leave it to others to be poignant.