Irvine Welsh is in a class of his own. Whatever the flaws of his books, they have a seething life in them that rivets attention and an inventiveness with story and language that continually amuses and amazes. The elaborate choreography of his predators and victims as they circle each other through the bars, offices and “fitba” terraces of Edinburgh seems powered by inexhaustibly rich reserves of desire, rage, guilt and scabrous humor.
The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs may not be his best novel (parts of it are not very good at all), but it shares the same roiling chorus of hard men, wee hoors, old jakeys and biddies as its predecessors, builds with the same logic of escalating perversity, and leaves one with the same reeling sensation of having got quite a bit more than one's money's worth.
The hero is Danny Skinner, a restaurant inspector for the Edinburgh council. Good-looking, ambitious, cleverer than anyone around him (he reads Schopenhauer between drink and drug binges with his mates), he's a type at which Welsh excels: the slick chancer whose prospects are imperiled only by his own self-destructive appetites and impulses.
The explanation offered for the latter is his mother's refusal to tell him who his father is; a mystery that propels half the action of the book. The other, more interesting, half is set in motion by the appearance of a teetotal virgin, Brian Kibby, who attends Star Trek conferences and plays childish videogames. Kibby gets a job at the restaurant inspectorate, entering Skinner's derisive orbit in the unfortunate possession of a toy train, purchased on his way into work. Almost immediately he awakens a demonic hatred in Skinner. The two find themselves in competition for the same office promotion, and the old dance begins.
As in earlier books (the intestinal parasite in Filth, for instance), a fantastical zoomorphic conceit is introduced, raising the stakes from mere bullying to a more apocalyptic persecution. By sheer power of loathing, Skinner puts a hex on Kibby, whereby the heavy toll of his bingeing is exacted not on his own body, but Kibby's. Skinner goes out on the town, but Kibby gets the hangover; Skinner gets beaten up, but Kibby wakes up with the bruises; Skinner attends an orgy where he's drugged and sodomized, but Kibby ... et cetera.
In his thoroughgoing way, Welsh pummels the conceit to yield the maximum possible narrative and metaphorical mileage. As poor Kibby grows mysteriously fatter and iller while Skinner bounces merrily from bar to bar and bed to bed, the device serves as a kind of Nietzschean glorying in the vigor of pagan indulgence over the sickness of puritan repression. Then, as it dawns on Skinner that if he actually drinks Kibby to death, he'll have killed the goose with the golden liver, the metaphor shifts to one of symbiosis: the subterranean bonds between predator and prey. The two become steadily obsessed with each other to the point where they begin to converge.
And then as Kibby, half-dead, grasps that his only hope of salvation lies in unleashing his own dark side, the contrivance becomes the vehicle for a characteristically melodramatic act of revenge.
This kind of baroque high concept can be both a stimulus and a burden for a writer. There are moments when you feel Welsh struggling to hide its inherent hokiness: an intermittent attempt to elevate Skinner's abuse-by-proxy into a symbol for [US President George W.] Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair's war in Iraq — “they get other people to deal with the shit they make through their own twisted vanity” — seems especially forced. And then, too, Kibby is a bit too much of a sap to arouse serious concern in the reader about his fate. But Skinner himself remains fascinating throughout, a study in seismically lurching urges, and his part in the danse macabre is compelling to observe.
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.