Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Confident return shows Welsh has more to give

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

The thing about being the voice of a generation is that every generation grows up.

Few authors will be more aware of this than Irvine Welsh, whose explosive entry to the literary scene with Trainspotting in 1993 has given him a mountain to climb.

To his credit, he's kept going, even as Trainspotting's success might have allowed him to become a kind of gruff Scots analogue of JD Salinger, or Joseph Heller, a one-classic wonder whose timeless reputation has been sealed by their earliest work.

While it's true there have been further works well worthy of note in Welsh's canon, returns have diminished as his career has progressed. The Bedroom Secrets 0f The Master Chefs (2006) was the most badly reviewed of all his books – not undeservedly.

That this latest novel shares a similarly tabloid-styled title as the latter might put many off, but that headline-grabbing top line disguises an unexpectedly confident return.

The Sex Lives Of Siamese Twins for the first time, takes a strong grip on voices far removed from those in poor housing schemes in Scottish cities.

His Twitter profile lists one of Welsh's residences as Miami, Florida, and it's there that Sex Lives is set. It pits both self-images of America against one another – Lucy Brennan in one corner, a 'workout nazi' at Hardass Training, whose subduing of a young man chasing two individuals across a street with a handgun makes her a local cause celebre.

In the other, Lena Sorensen, artist and frequenter of cute animal websites, her confidence crushed by a psychotic ex-boyfriend and her presence 'a crime against the aesthetic order in South Beach'.

It's Sorensen who films Brennan's actions on the Interstate, first turning her into a celebrity and then into a villain, when it emerges the man was out for revenge on two paedophiles who abused him when he was younger.

Yet, her actions cement the pair's relationship, as the brutally blunt and image-consumed Brennan first unwillingly agrees to be Sorensen's personal trainer, and then becomes obsessed with correcting her overeating behaviour, to the point where she kidnaps and imprisons her.

With a cast of characters poised between humanity and grotesquery and the exposure of some extreme behaviours, this is clearly Welsh territory and many readers might not appreciate its sensational veneer.

Yet how far he has removed himself from his comfort zone in writing female Americans is validated by the clarity with which he – at the age of 55 – eviscerates Western society's great – and potentially most dangerous – obsessions with food, health and sex.

What came after Kurt Cobain killed himself

Grunge legend Kurt Cobain is dead two decades now – you probably noticed the recent raft of commemorations – but his fame burns brighter than ever.

Like with Elvis, Lennon and others, death is no barrier to enduring success. The records still sell by the bucketload. The merchandising flies off shelves. Nirvana's influence is heard in every second new rock group.

Documentaries, video games, comics, you name it: the Nirvana/Cobain industry is a giant which will probably never die.

Here We Are Now examines all of this. Unlike most works on Kurt, which focus on his music or brief but electrifying life, this is about what came after he killed himself in 1994 (it's subtitled 'The lasting impact of Kurt Cobain').

Charles R Cross, who previously wrote an excellent Cobain biography, divides this impact into five sections: music, broader culture, style/fashion, addiction and suicide issues, and his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington and adopted home of Seattle.

You're always a little suspicious when someone makes grandiose claims on behalf of a musician or actor. In this case, though, it seems valid and Cross's arguments stack up quite well. Obviously, Kurt's impact on music is clear to anyone with ears. Cross uses hard evidence, statistics and quotes from experts to make a compelling case that Kurt's self-killing – and the tsunami of publicity around it – actually prevented further suicides and opened people's eyes to the insidious problem of substance abuse. On a lighter note, the section on fashion is convincing, too, albeit beyond weird that this scrawny, scruffy nerd from a Pacific North-West backwater would still be influencing catwalks 20 years post-mortem.

The main drawback with Here We Are Now is that it's short, and feels more like a series of lengthy magazine articles than a proper book. But Cross is a good writer, and more importantly, he knew Cobain personally: Cross's own memories, his deep involvement in the grunge scene, add heft to his arguments and overall poignancy.

Especially poignant is the chapter on Cobain's upbringing. He was a latch-key kid of divorced parents (and Irish roots: the family has been traced to Tyrone). In other words, a classic modern-American domestic tragedy waiting to happen. Happen it did, but not before the 27-year-old inscribed his genius across the music world, and others.

Nirvana fans will enjoy this book as an aide-memoire to that time which was simultaneously great and terrible – and an explanation of why the time, and man, are worth remembering.

By Charles R Cross. IT Books £14.99

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