Monday, December 22, 2008

Recent Readings: "Marabou Stork Nightmares" by Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting changed my life. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that John Hodge and Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting changed my life. I first saw the film when I was 17, the night it opened at the King Theater in downtown La Crosse. As a clean-living country boy from rural Wisconsin, there’s no reason I should have connected so intensely to the antics of a bunch of heroin-addled Scots, but for some reason the adventures of Renton and company just hit home for me. I saw the movie six times in the theater and stole a copy of the video as soon as it was released.

I held off on reading the book for more than a decade, largely because I was repeatedly told that it was much better than the film. It may sound odd, but I loved the movie so much that I didn’t want to tarnish it by viewing its superior source material. Of course, when I finally broke down and read the book, my friends were proven right. Welsh’s novel is absolutely amazing, one of the finest works of literature written in the last few decades. The characterizations, the use of dialect, the shifting points of view – it’s all brilliantly done and endlessly readable.

Not long after I finished Trainspotting, I was offered a chance to share a stage with Irvine Welsh at a public reading (thanks, Sexy Bald Men!). It was a hell of a rush, even if Welsh’s accent rendered most of his reading indecipherable for me. After the show, I violated all of my self-imposed fanboy laws and gushed my praise all over him. I didn’t even do that when I saw John Goodman at a sushi restaurant, and that dude was Walter Sobchak, for god’s sake!

All of this needlessly in-depth preamble just serves to show how hyped I was for Marabou Stork Nightmares, my first encounter with Welsh outside of the Trainspotting vernacular. I picked it out of a small array of Welsh novels at Crow Books in Burlington, Vermont based mainly on the unique premise: it’s told from the perspective of Roy Strang, a coma patient who constantly blurs the grim facts of his waking life with the exciting fantasy world he’s constructed within his head.

Reading this book turned out to be an exhilarating, horrifying, nauseating experience. It’s an excellent novel in just about every respect, but also one I wish I could block from my memory. The story of a bright but profoundly damaged young man who’s been raised to associate violence with love, sex, self-worth and nearly every other facet of his life, this is one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read. The stories of the Strang family’s extremely dysfunctional home life are hard enough to take – Roy’s ongoing campaign of sadism against the family dog is especially cringe-worthy – but it’s an excruciatingly long and graphic rape scene that truly pushes this into nightmare territory. I won’t provide any spoilers, but I’ll say that I’ve never before been so intensely horrified by a passage of fiction.

Unpleasant though it is, Marabou Stork Nightmares is eminently worthwhile because the brutality never comes off as extraneous. It’s a story of abuse and neglect at every level, from personal to societal. Welsh’s narrative is disturbing because it has to be. Pulling any punches would dilute the horror of Roy Strang’s existence and the impossibility of his attempts to escape into his homemade world of adventure. Even the traumatizing rape sequence is well-earned. As much as I found myself wishing Welsh would back off and spare me just a few ugly details, I had to respect his decision to spell everything out in its vicious totality. "Shock value" generally has a negative connotation, but that's only because many writers emphasize the shock at the expense of the value. Welsh's approach underlines the heinous nature of sexual assault and augments one of the book’s most important themes, the futility of trying to escape reality.

All told, Marabou Stork Nightmares solidifies Irvine Welsh’s status as one of my favorite living authors, but it also made me resolve to take a break from grimness and read something a little more uplifting. To that end, I promptly embarked on Cormac McCarthy’s feel-good, Oprah-endorsed father-son romp The Road. After Marabou Stork Nightmares, that one was a regular laugh riot.

- Ira Brooker

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