Friday 2 February 2007

The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

Irvine Welsh

Ah, Irvine Welsh. There’s something about those two words that bring back so many memories: Trainspotting, heroin abuse, Ewan McGregor chasing a suppository down a dirty loo, Edinburgh, that annoying ‘lager lager’ shouting song, heroin abuse, the middle class ‘cunts’ who go to the Edinburgh festival, that freaky baby, heroin abuse…

I am perhaps being a little flippant, but there’s no denying that Welsh is in that tricky position facing any cool writer who writes a generation-defining book: things move on. This is 2007: Ewan McGregor’s that singing bloke from Moulin Rouge who likes riding his bike across South America; Damon Albarn is now more critically and commercially revered than Liam Gallagher; all the cool kids are now smoking crack and\or trying to save Africa; going round shouting ‘lager lager’ qualifies you both for an ASBO and a stint in the binge-drinking clinic.

But, from Welsh’s perspective, maybe things haven’t changed that much. The general Fringe audience is probably no more or less middle class or, indeed, cuntish than it’s ever been. Edinburgh is still viewed as dark and menacing and Gothic as it was in the time of Burke and Hare. Scotland’s political interests have never been better served in Westminster, and yet the SNP like to pretend they’re an oppressed colony. And Hearts’n'Hibs still aren’t as good as Celtic or Rangers.

Despite the sense of familiarity, however, Welsh is a technically better writer than a lot of his critics give him credit for and, in any case, he is hardly the first writer constantly to re-cover favourite themes. Although it may often have felt that he was trying to relive past glories by returning to his Trainspotting characters in books like Glue and Porno, he can still provide vivid and interesting insights into addiction and self-destruction.

The plot hinges on the hard-living chef Danny and his insane hatred for his clean-living, virginal and geeky workmate Brian. Due to a (happily acknowledged) Dorian Gray-style plot device, the physical effects of Danny’s raucous lifestyle are suffered by Brian, who is forced to endure all the accompanying aspects of the alcoholic lifestyle - disapproval, despair, crushing hangovers - with none of the consoling oblivion.

The book is at its most interesting when it deals with Danny’s conflicted desire to harm his enemy as much as possible, while needing desperately to curb his drinking in order to preserve the health of his scapegoat: a useful metaphor for the insanity of addiction. Even better is his need to vindicate his self-destruction by finding out the identity of his absent father, seemingly to prove that he was an alcoholic, and therefore that Danny can’t help it.

As the search unfolds this kind of self-pitying fatalism is exposed for the absurdity it is - the last refuge of a scoundrel unable to face up to his own problems. When he finds out that his father was actually a violent drunk, but one who managed to redeem and control himself, Danny is left with no option but to face up to the truth: he drinks because he’s too cowardly not to.

Unfortunately, and despite the promising correlations drawn between alcoholism and the current obsession with culinary habits (suggesting that they are drawn from, and sustained by, the same cultural roots) the novel never really gets going. Welsh’s targets of satire - minor celebrity, the vapidity of the West Coast lifestyle (Danny has a sojourn in California), corrupt bureaucrats - are so soft that you secretly wonder whether Welsh is gunning for his own BBC3 sitcom. He also has an annoying tendency to sign-post whenever there’s a Very Important Social Point being made, just in case you missed the fact that it’s all a metaphor for the way Bush and Blair run the world. Or something.

The fundamental messages of The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs - that guilt for its own sake is the most dangerous and destructive of all emotions, and that you need to learn to take control of your own life rather than giving in to a non-existent fate - are sound ones, and are articulated in an amusing and (occasionally) heartbreaking fashion. But you are left wishing that, like the sorrowful drunk who knows he’s going to do it all over again tomorrow, Welsh could just be a little less apologetic about it.



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