Monday, May 26, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE SEX LIVES OF SIAMESE TWINS” by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape / Random House, $NZ37:99)
            Just a couple of posts back, I was using Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles / Pitie Pour les Femmes to preach that it is possible to admire how a novel is written while deploring what it is saying; or conversely to admire what a novel is saying while deploring how it is written. In other words, even though style and meaning are bound up in each other (check out any writing manual or introduction to literary appreciation), one has to discuss both in assessing any novel.
            Now how do I deal with a more trying case – an author who has some skill as a yarn-spinner, some story-telling ingenuity, but whose style is lumpy at best and whose ideas bounce between the dodgy, the formulaic and the repulsive? You can already tell that I am straining at the bit in reviewing Irvine Welsh’s The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. Did I enjoy it? No I didn’t. Do I think the author has added anything to our understanding of the world, or given us any insights worth having? No I don’t. How humane are the novel’s ideas? Not very.

And yet I know that ever since his first novel Trainspotting (and especially since the movie it engendered), the Scots novelist has a following, even if his schtick is to rub his audience’s noses in it and dare us to be repelled. Heroin addiction, porn-addiction and similar matters are his usual novelistic beat.
            So, given my negative reaction to this latest 460-odd page novel, how do I account for the author’s apparent popularity?
I’ll clear the air a little by giving you the premise and set-up.
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is set in affluent-but-sleazy Miami. Lucy Brennan is a “personal trainer” – a gym-instructor focused exclusively on maintaining her perfect body and getting her clients to shed their fat. Lucy hates the obese, the unfit, the unbeautiful; and as she does most of the novel’s first-person narrating, we get to hear her foul-mouthed words of scorn for anybody who doesn’t fit her desired bodily criteria. This is narcissism plus massive aggression.
Lena Sorensen is an unhappy, obese, unfit sculptor who hails from the bleak and boring Middle West. She is needy, loveless and looking for somebody to heal whatever ails her.
They meet when Lucy does something apparently heroic in the street, disarming a gunman who is attacking homeless men. Lena happens to be nearby. She films the action on her camera phone, and in no time the released footage is making Lucy a media celebrity, and bringing her offers of lucrative TV work. Actually, the part of the plot related to the media fades out fairly rapidly, after Welsh has enjoyed himself taking a few swipes at TV producers and their scouts and the way they back off quickly from anything that might hurt their ratings (turns out that the "homeless men" Lucy rescued were paedophiles, so the great unwashed suddenly cease to see Lucy's actions as heroic). What matters is that fat, dumpy Lena feels she now has a bond with trim, beautiful Lucy and begins to trail after her. She even wants Lucy to be her “personal trainer”.
But Lucy reacts in an extreme fashion, and by mid-point the novel’s core gimmick has been reached. Frustrated with Lena’s lack of will-power in the cause of shedding fat, Lucy in effect kidnaps her and chains her up in an unused new apartment block (there are incidental comments about the ways of Floridian urban real-estate), forcing her to trim down on a tiny diet and a punishing exercise regime. Lena becomes leaner and maybe the pun was intentional.
So we have a novel with a sadomasochistic core – one woman keeping the other prisoner, starving her and in effect torturing her in the cause of turning her into a version of herself. And the other woman gradually getting used to it and liking it. Lucy forces Lena to write out her memories to purge herself of her addiction to food. This allows for another narrative voice (printed in different typeface lest we are too stupid to perceive it is a different voice) and such self-confession as Lena’s account of her descent into morbid obesity by way of depression and lack of confidence in herself:
 “We ate whole pies, pizzas and cheesecakes till we were sick. We would lie on the couch, immobilized, barely able to draw breath. We were almost drunk, almost drowned by food. Tormented by stomach-cramps and acid reflux; beyond satisfied, in real physical pain, sitting in abject self-hate which throbbed inside us like the garbage we’d just eaten, yet just wanting this mountain we’d tipped inside our guts to subside, to be broken up and processed by our bodies, the pounds of fat sticking onto what was already there. Just wanting that to happen so that we could start again. Because when it happened we just felt so empty. We needed, craved, the same again.” (p.256)
More to the point, Lucy’s memories are about copulation with both sexes. Lena’s memories are about limited copulation with the male sex only. But there is a lesbian core to their relationship, which becomes stronger as Lena sheds the pounds. The novel’s blurb says it’s about “folies-a-deux” Well, maybe. A press release (related to Irvine Welsh’s recent appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival) calls it “swampy Floridian lesbian noir”. Again, maybe. It’s pushing it to call sensationalism like this “noir”.
Without a “maybe”, however, I can say that Irvine Welsh goes in for dead-obvious symbolism to try to give it resonance. While Lena and Lucy are playing their games, they every so often follow a news story on television about Siamese twins who are trying to decide if they should have a life-threatening operation which could separate them. Okay, okay, I get it (not that there’s much to get). Lena and Lucy are as emotionally attached to each other as Siamese twins are physically attached, and their separation could have dire consequences. My crude guess is that Welsh’s main purpose in deploying this conceit was to give the novel a sexed-up, marketable title.
I admit that there are some moments of sour humour in this novel which are passingly amusing, as in this exchange between Lena and the narrating Lucy:
 “- I hear the University of Miami is a really good school, Lena nods.
Don’t kid a kidder, girl, I say in those sage, world-weary tones that disconcertingly remind me of my father – When Sly Stallone and Farrah Fawcett are your best-known alumni, you know that a degree there is worth less than a Twinkies wrapper.” (p.162)
That Lucy’s father is a writer of crime fiction also allows Welsh to have the odd engaging snicker at a different type of formula fiction from the type of formula fiction he himself writes. But then, when he attempts to parody the crime fiction of Lucy’s father, the parody is remarkably inept and unconvincing.
Unfortunately, there’s a big disjunction between the crass, tough and crude voice Welsh gives to Lucy and the perceptions he allows Lucy to have. So self-absorbed is this narrator, so wedded to her own perceptions of what people should be that, in effect, Welsh has to go epistolary in order to let Lena’s viewpoint be seen. In Chapter 27, we are served a big dollop of Lena’s written confessions before Welsh has Lucy cussing her out “for writing f**king War and Peace.” (p.251). The voice of the narrator is, in fact, quite improbable. The author’s mask keeps slipping as he forgets he is supposed to be speaking as Lucy and proceeds to write in his own idiom. Take this passage where Lucy is discussing the Siamese twins:
However, the girls have pleaded with the courts and their parents to consent to the operation, despite the fact that Amy’s chances of survival are not rated any higher than one in five. Annabel has an estimated 82 per cent shot of leading a normal life following the procedure. Now they’re showing the twins walking together in long shot, strangely harmonious, even graceful, in their synchronized movement, before cutting to Amy in close-up….” (p.285)
Is the section which I have underlined spoken by the same Lucy who effs and blinds and shows no real sympathy for anybody? Nah. It’s spoken by the novelist.
It is made clear early in the novel that Lucy basically sees other people as meat or as commodities to be exploited. She goes clubbing in search of sex, she couples mechanically with a stranger, and their swyving ends with her remarking:
As he fades and slips out of me, I climb off him, lowering myself onto unsteady legs. In more than a hint of desperation, he croaks that his name is Enrique and he wants to buy me a drink. But the dude is just like a piece of gym equipment to me, and we’re now in a postworkout scenario. I’ve had my dose of dick…. So I smile and say – Thanks, that’s very kind of you, but you know what? I gotta go. Maybe some other time, enjoying the sad tumble of his face and the sorrow in those brown eyes. No point in hanging around a joint like this once you got what you came for. I go back home and check my emails.” (p.69)
With a bit of straining it might be argued that this is the flawed narrator speaking and not the novelist. It might further be noted that (after heaps of narrative improbability), the story ends up with the two main characters “healed” of some of what ailed them and settled into a stable lesbian domestic relationship, with a baby, forsooth. Narcissism is overcome, Lucy sees the loveable person that Lena is etc. etc. But this ending reminds me, in an odd sort of way, of the old Cecil B. De Mille formula for Biblical spectacle. You show people healed of their sins, but to attract the customers you spend more time licking your lips over the sins than you devote to the healing.
Not only is the “solution” to the psychopathology of Lucy (she was a teenage rape victim) and of Lena (she was massively exploited by a jealous boyfriend) glib and too neat; but we have to ask why there are so many graphic sex scenes along the way. Five or six times, in anatomically explicit detail, Irvine Welsh gives us lesbian sex. Why? It reads like “lesbian” porn for a male audience. A masturbation fantasy pretending to be part of character exposition.
I asked earlier how, despite my negative reaction to this novel, I account for the author’s apparent popularity. The best I can do is to direct you (via the index at right) to a post I put up quite some time back. It’s called Let’s Go Slumming, Take Me Slumming. Just as fashionable people once amused themselves by looking at the inhabitants of madhouses, so do some readers now get a buzz out of looking at what is squalid and extreme and preferably involving wild and crazy sex. You can do this safely if you’re only encountering it in a book. And given this buzz, you might even invite to a writers’ festival an author who couldn’t do subtlety if he was chained up in an empty apartment and tortured to do it.

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