The chemistry of desire


Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance
By Irvine Welsh
Random House, 1996. 276 pp., $20 (pb)
Reviewed by Nick Fredman

Irvine Welsh is the young Scottish writer who shot to fame in 1993 when his first novel, Trainspotting, a gritty tale of 1980s Edinburgh lowlife, hit the best-seller list. Welshs work has reached a larger audience this year since Trainspotting has been made into a film by the makers of the cult black comedy Shallow Grave.

As the name implies, the stories in Ecstasy are about the parallels and connections between human relationships and the use and abuse of chemical substances. In "Lorraine Goes to Livingstone", Rebecca, writer of soppy 18th century romances, befriends Lorraine, a young nurse, after suffering a stroke. Lorraine encourages Rebecca to break out of her rose-coloured view of her marriage, to plot ingenious revenge against her sponging husband and to find freedom with the help of jungle house music. Rebecca in turn helps Lorraine to see the attraction of true (non-exploitative) romance.

In "Fortunes Always Riding", the damage caused by the greedy and careless manufacturers of a painkiller for pregnant women is a metaphor for the distortions capitalist society causes to human emotions and desires. Petty thug Dave is drawn by love for the beautiful but chemically maimed Samantha into a spiral of revenge, lust and extremely graphic violence.

"The Undefeated" tells the story of Lloyd, coming down hard from overindulgence in chemicals and clubbing, who falls for Heather, who is just entering that scene as part of an escape from a dreadful marriage to a Tony Blair-supporting junior executive. Their respective chemical experiences and attempts to reconcile "the overwhelming ecstasy of love" and the "ovewhelming love of ecstasy" make a very moving and funny tale.

Welsh presents a realistic, non-moralising picture of youth culture and the widespread use of chemical drugs within it. As in Trainspotting, he does not shy away from the grim details of abuse and dependency. But he argues for the rationality of recreational drug use in an irrational and oppressive society, and celebrates the sense of solidarity and anti-establishment feeling that is at least part of rave culture.

A key feature of Welshs writing is the use of varied modes of narration and points of view between and within stories. For a male writer, Welsh strikingly portrays the feeling of women suffering blatant and subtle forms of harassment and discrimination. Many of his protagonists are women struggling for choice and independence.

The far left and radical politics often turn up around the peripheries of Welshs narratives. Through his characters Welsh reflects the disgust at both the Conservatives and the new Labour of "Tory Blair", but also the scepticism about the left that is widespread among working-class youth. This, however, is not the jaded, intellectualist cynicism of a writer like Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia), but a sympathy to left-wing ideas that would perhaps lead to more active support when the left is a more viable alternative.

Electronic dance music and the "necking" of MDMA-based pills will not save the world. But Welsh does not pretend that it will. Along with Trainspotting and his collection of short stories The Acid House, Ecstasy is a highly recommended insight into youth culture.