“Trainspotting” by Irvine Welsh
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Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed that Capitalist society, which is based on the right of each individual to own private property, is the cause of the main class divides evident in today’s society. That the basic right to own property results in the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, becoming obsessed with the accumulation of possessions and, as a consequence, becoming slaves to commodities; Commodity fetishism. This resulted, they argued, in the widening of class divisions. Capitalist society is described by some as protecting freedom and individuality. However, it also, undeniably, encourages self-interest, greed and – as Marx argued – an obsession with private property.
It is a society whose basis lies in the fundamental need to accumulate property. The people within this society who do not have the means to amass material possessions are pitied, considered the underclass. They are seen to be lacking in something, incomplete, and are encouraged to ‘make something’ of themselves. To acquire qualifications, a job that pays well, to set themselves up so that they too can begin to accumulate material goods. This, society argues, is what everyone should strive for.
It has been said that Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is a critique of both excess, and the culture of, materialism. The characters in Trainspotting are drug users and have alienated themselves from society. However, is this a rejection of materialistic society or is it a result of their exclusion from society, and their inability to ‘succeed’ due to their social class?
Trainspotting is a poignant story told with a certain rawness and harsh resignation that exposes the reality of the ruthless world in which the characters of the novel are born into. They are working class and, it can be argued, the very name of their school, birthplace, accent and mannerisms are all indicators of the fact that they will remain working class for the rest of their lives:
“The kid’s name wis doon fir H.M.Prison Saughton when it was still in June’s womb, as sure as the foetus of a rich bastard is Eton-bound”
The novel is constructed through a web of dislocated tales of all the characters, which is gradually pieced together throughout the course of the book. Each character’s social situation is bleak; surrounded by violence, poverty or death. The heroin they use can be read as a form of escapism from the desolation that surrounds them, a way of escaping grim reality. However, is this merely a rejection of poverty or does Welsh suggest that this is also a rejection of materialism, of capitalist society?
The characters of the novel do not work; they deceive the government by fiddling as much money as they can from the Welfare to fund their heroin addictions. The sort of people that the government might describe as a ‘drain on society’. Yet is there justification for this? The sociological approach suggests that the proletariat is always told that to work hard is to achieve, but that this is a lie. Marx believed that the proletariat is being exploited through their labour, that their work serves only to benefit the bourgeoisie. He argued that the proletariat works only in order to survive, no matter how hard they work they will never ‘succeed’ in a capitalist society. That is, they will never earn enough to accumulate material possessions of any real value, real value being that of happiness, or to be completely contented. A treadmill effect, so to speak, they are constantly running but getting nowhere for their efforts. So to reject work is also to reject society’s materialism. Or is the rejection of employment merely a resignation to the fact that, for them at least, the act of labour will give them no reward?
For the character of Mark Renton at least, it can be argued that this is not the case. His character is a particularly interesting one in that, in contrast to his friends, he has both the intelligence and the opportunity to succeed within the capitalist society. He appears to see the world for what it really is, the uselessness of a society which is centred on the accumulation of material goods. We learn early in the story that Mark had a place at Aberdeen University but that he had blown his grant money on prostitutes. He tells his therapist that he hated Aberdeen because of the “staff, the students and aw that. Ah thought they were aw boring middle class cunts”. At this point in the novel the reader is tempted to agree with Mark’s therapist, that he was simply unable to form relationships with the people there, that due to his social background, he was unable to fit in.
However Mark maintains that it was not that he was unable to form relationships, it was that he was unwilling to. He suggests that the problem was not that society alienated him, that he alienated himself from society – that this was a rejection of capitalism. This argument is not backed up until later in the book where Mark and Spud are on trial because they were caught stealing books. Mark maintains that he stole books not to sell them, but to read them. Again, at first, the reader is inclined to disbelieve that this is true, simply because very few people in a capitalist society steal to directly accumulate unless for immediate consumption. It seems more likely that he would have more use out of the books he stole by selling them on, to fund his heroin addiction.
It is an alien concept that a heroin addict who would steal something would not want to make a profit from it. However, later on we find out that he was telling the truth – he was stealing the books to read them rather than to resell them. Thus it can be concluded that Mark’s rejection of university was not a rejection of learning, it was a rejection of a materialist culture. He realised that he was just supporting this obsession with materialism, that his degree had nothing to do with learning, it was merely a passage into the bourgeoisie class, into the arms of materialism. It would simply allow him to find a job which in turn would enable him to accumulate material goods. By learning within the university institution he was merely supporting the capitalist system.
Renton is the character who appears to see most clearly the implications of the materialistic culture. He is resigned to the fact that the rich exploit the working class but he also believes that it is no better off being one of the rich. That the lives of the bourgeoisie are not any more enhanced through their possession of material goods. They are, as Marx stated, ‘slaves to commodities’. His drug use, he argues, is in part at least, a rejection of a capitalist, materialist culture that he has no way of escaping from:
“Ah despised masel and the world because ah failed tae face up tae ma ain, and life’s, limitations”
The fact that they choose a life of heroin over a life of materialism has to be a criticism of the capitalist culture in itself. That capitalism reduces people to the misery portrayed through the characters in Trainspotting is a harsh criticism.
The idea that capitalism, a system supposedly based on freedom and individuality, is restricting is suggested again through Mark’s apparent hatred of animals. Even when he is high on Ecstasy, a drug that makes the user have warm feelings towards everyone and everything, he still wants to kill an innocent squirrel. Spud suggests that Mark hates the animal because it is free:
“He’s free. That’s mibbe what Rents cannae stand. The squirrel’s free, man”
Although this is suggested when Spud is not in a sound state of mind, it may have more truth in it than first appears. It is the suggestion that the squirrel is not bound to life’s ‘limitations’, that it is free from the restrictions of society. Although Mark himself rejects society, he is far from free from it. He is not content with himself or his situation. There appears to be no escape from society’s materialistic obsessions and class divisions. Although he is not bound to restrictions caused by want of money or possessions, he is bound within a new limitation. He cannot escape from his own unique dimension outwith society. It creates no happiness or fulfilment for him – the heroin fills this void temporarily but it is an illusion because it is not real.
Mark insists that society rejects people who are different or who alienate themselves from the social order, or simply reject what society has to offer, simply because its seen as a sign of it’s own failure. His rejection of materialistic society is summed up by the infamous quote, which was used also in the opening of Trainspotting the film:
“Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.”
It is the tone of bitterness here; the satire used which cements the idea that it is a complete rejection of the culture of materialism. It is an absolute criticism of capitalist society, exposing the utter pointlessness of a life based upon the need of possessions. It suggests that to choose life in this society is to choose material goods, that life essentially is material goods and nothing else. The character of Mark Renton clearly states “Well, ah choose no tae choose life”. In this sense, the novel is indeed a deliberate critique of excess, and the culture of, materialism. For it is not just a slight obsession causing excess materialism, it is the very set up of our society, of capitalism.
It is the conclusion of the novel, however, that causes problems for this argument. Mark, Spud, Second Prize, Sick Boy and Begbie go to London to sell on some heroin they have been lucky to come across. It is the ultimate moneymaking scheme and they will split the money five ways. The scheme is successful and they make thousands of pounds. However, Renton betrays his friends and takes all the money for himself. It is on this note that the novel concludes. On one hand, there is the view that Renton has conformed to capitalism. He uses the money as a means of escape to a better life. The novel has ultimately failed to present a valid alternative to materialism. In order to escape from it, and from the social limitations established by it, Mark needs money, which is a contradiction in itself. Yet it is what he does with the money that would determine whether or not he embraces the self-indulgence of capitalism and the novel does not clarify this. It is left open to question, not only to the reader, but to Mark himself.
However, the conclusion of the novel can also be seen to be a negative response to materialism. Begbie and Sick Boy are the ultimate capitalists. Sick Boy is concerned only with money and as Mark rationalises: “Sick Boy would recoup the cash; he was a born exploiter”. In a sense, by betraying Begbie and Sick Boy he is also betraying capitalism. Spud, on the other hand, is one of the exploited. He has been oppressed through society’s materialistic obsession:
“People…invested too much emotion in objects. Spud could not be held responsible for society’s materialism and commodity fetishism.” `
It can also be said that although Mark embraces a life of materialism in the end as opposed to a life of heroin, this does not matter as it is not the way you live which matters, it is about the person you are. This idea is reinforced by the fact that Spud, probably the only genuinely true friend of Renton’s, is compensated by him. Renton leaves Spud part of the money he steals for himself, a gesture born out of true friendship rather than out of guilt or fear of retribution. Spud will not become consumed by materialism the way that Begbie or Sick Boy would. It is much more likely that he will use the money to make his life less miserable and will not indulge in the accumulation of meaningless possessions.
So the novel Trainspotting is a critique of the culture of materialism. It examines and upholds a rejection of this culture through the main characters of the novel, particularly Mark Renton. It observes the result of class divisions, which are ultimately created by the absence, or presence of material goods in peoples lives. This can be seen on two levels. Firstly that the poverty and misery of the working class is exposed to the reader and secondly that an examination is given of the absolute worthlessness of material goods in peoples lives. The novel suggests that this excess materialism, that our very culture which is focused on materialism, is completely pointless. As Welsh challenges the idea that it is the heroin addicts who are wasting their lives by countering this with the argument that the rest of society, that is those who conform to society, are not any less wasteful of their own lives.
That they are slaves to commodities in the same way as they believe drug users to be slaves to heroin. In this sense then, society only rejects those who alienate themselves from it because the rejection of materialist society is seen as its own failure. The conclusion of the novel proposes then that excess materialism and the culture of materialism can be escaped from. Instead of rejecting it through the use of drugs as a means of escapism, he rejects it simply by not conforming to the materialist culture. He realises that it is not the money that matters. It is because he realises that it is not the money that matters that ensures he will never become obsessed with the accumulation of material goods.