Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Voice of the chemical generation takes a swipe at foodies

Irvine Welsh, the master of bringing to life the pain of indulgence over the sickness of puritan repression, has penned a tale of debauchery and revenge

By James Lasdun  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

His paternity quest is less so. It gets the novel into the world of celebrity chefs (Skinner's mother was a waitress at the time of his conception), which occasions some funny send-ups of foodies as well as perhaps the first ever staging of a murder by grand piano.

But in itself it feels schematic: a neat explanation that never plausibly accounts for Skinner's very plausible turmoil. You know it isn't working when you hear the book shrilly asserting that it is: “he desperately wanted to know about his own father before he ever thought about becoming one himself.”

As that line suggests, the prose here isn't always up to Welsh's pithily rigorous standards. Most of his novels unfold through the beautifully individuated voices of their characters, usually Scottish. A sign, perhaps even a cause, of something comparatively slight or less densely imagined about this book is that much of it is written in the third person, and in a surprisingly conventional English that few of the characters actually speak. There are phrases that come at you as if fresh from elocution class: “his attire, a tastefully blended mix of quality designer clothing ... ,” others seem sampled from old Penguin Balzac translations — a room “with huge ceilings, impressive cornices.” It isn't that Welsh can't do omniscient narrative or “English” English — he's actually very good at both — just that here they seem haphazardly applied, with a corresponding impression of a slightly haphazard engagement with the characters themselves.

I suspect Welsh found himself wanting to write a more picaresque book than his premise allowed. Bedroom Secrets is at its best in the interstitial passages where the action isn't required to service the storyline. Skinner's incidental relationships with women — a doomed engagement with one, an office fling with another — are particularly well drawn, the ebb and flow of emotion set down with powerful precision, the sex scenes vividly expressive of the psychological essence of each encounter. At one point he goes to San Francisco, where he picks up a woman at an AA meeting. The unexpected romance that follows is done superbly in the few pages given to it — a little Californian sunburst conjured out of nowhere. But then Skinner has to go and meet the chef whose possible candidacy as his father formed the pretext for this trip — and the book climbs back into the harness of its plot. Fair enough: the job has to be done. But it would be interesting to see what this formidably gifted writer could do at greater length in the more casual, improvisatory vein of these free-floating passages.

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