In his latest novel, Filth, Irvine Welsh stays close to the scabs-and-sewers terrain that made his reputation. Welsh fans who cut their teeth on Trainspotting will find much to enjoy in the odyssey of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh police officer mired in a twin murder and civil rights investigation. Robertson's primary goals are conventional: He wants a promotion to detective rank, and his annual Christmas vacation in Amsterdam. His progress, though, is as bumpy as his case of scrotal eczema. Forced subjection to hours of "sensitivity training," controversy over some slanderous bathroom graffiti, and seductions of colleagues' wives are only some of the obstacles our hero confronts on his path to enlightenment (if not fulfillment).
Fans of metaphysical literature beware: Welsh's loving depictions of the (dis)pleasures of the flesh come unadulterated by any profundity. Many artists who share Welsh's delight in the story of the body (Madonna, Egon Schiele, Damien Hirst) have infused their work with self-justifying caveats ("I'm trying to get Americans to confront their own hypocrisies," et al). Welsh will have none of that, wallowing gleefully in the thickness of this mortal coil. With Filth, we're in the arena of grossness without apology.
The sensations of reading such prose provoke disparate reactions. At times it's exhilarating to be a spectator to Welsh's insouciant joyride: It's refreshing to watch a young novelist eschew mature analyses and psychological minutiae. Yet, after a few vignettes involving, say, fellatio performed on Robertson's scabrous member (hint: the flakes on that schoolgirl's shoulders aren't dandruff), or the escape of flatus from one's trousers at the end of a long day, the effect loses its middle-school charm.
No discussion of Welsh's work is complete without addressing his use of Edinburgh dialect, which is both frustrating and essential. In the case of Filth, the dialect contributes to the novel's unremitting physicality: Seeing a combination of letters like "disnae" (i.e., "does not") on a page signifies very little by itself. To gain any understanding of what's happening necessitates some reading aloud. Even the setup of the pages emphasizes the physical: Words, typefaces, and graphics are scattered across the pages of Filth in a manner reminiscent of nothing so much as Dennis Rodman's recent memoir, Bad as I Wanna Be. These two texts are similar in their unflinching detail, but at least Rodman's is couched in a classic poor-kid-makes-good narrative. Welsh's, by contrast, lacks even this traditional mooring point. The novel feels dangerous as a result, having cast off any narrative or moral expectations.
In that sense, Robertson's approach to life mirrors his creator's approach to art. That is to say, Robertson's disregard for anything beyond the advancement of his career and the scratching of his itches is as dismissive of popular morality as Welsh's style is of popular fiction's niceties. By refusing to gloss over the simple joys of farting or the primitive misery of an unscratchable itch, this crass character makes no demands of empathy on the reader.
The strength of Welsh's choice to chronicle the body lies mainly in its consistency, though, and when matters of the spirit intrude, the novel begins to disintegrate. It probably doesn't help that the only two players in Filth who show signs of a psychological consciousness are two tapeworms. While some might consider Welsh's willingness to explore the possibilities of platyhelminthine consciousness an admirable experiment, the overall effect is puerile. This may lie in the visual depiction of these narrators: All the tapeworm passages are distinguished from the rest of the text through placement in an extended bracket meant to resemble a human intestine. The intestinal brackets tend to appear when Bruce is either eating or excreting. So much for thematic delicacy.
The tapeworms ultimately spout the same pop-psych twaddle that Robertson lampoons so astutely and so gleefully throughout the rest of the novel. Though Welsh makes many brave aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) choices throughout much of the novel, he sabotages the concluding chapters with a saccharine, This Is Your Life-rendition of Robertson's childhood traumas, which presumably explains his asocial conduct as an adult. Filth's dirty appeal lies in its acceptance of Robertson's behavior--its refusal either to justify or judge even his most outrageous acts. Lengthy meditations and facile omniscience emitted from the orifice of a tapeworm dilute that. Conceived to shock, Filth is ultimately generic morality in libertine clothing, positing talk-show homilies as genuine subversiveness. Wait for the movie.