The Marabou Stork Nightmare reviewed by David B. Livingstone
Mar 2, 2009, 12:10
THE MARABOU STORK NIGHTMARES by Irvine Welsh; W.W. Norton, 1997
In the wake of the surprise stateside success of the film adaptation of his Trainspotting—a sickly, strangely funny slice of life amidst Edinburough's heroin subculture—Irvine Welsh has emerged at the epicenter of “alternative” literature's fickle limelight, a bull in the well-ordered china shop of calculated outrageousness, test-marketed sexuality, and preening narcissism. While every other “bad boy/bad girl” author on the block seems to have a degree from Iowa or Brown (and writing styles which bristle with all the spontaneity of a Facts Of Life rerun), Welsh's work at its best pulses with a gritty, frenetic rawness that seems much too real to be the product of simple invention, the jumpy and convulsive authorial style suggesting experiences either lived or hallucinated. What's more, Welsh's worldview—at least as presented thus far—revels in a distinctly un-politically correct, almost celebratory amoralism that accepts alienation as a given, violence as an inevitability, and intoxication as a measured, reasoned response, given the circumstances. Hardly the stuff of “just say no.”
Trainspotting drew much of its punch from its narrator's detached take on a decay—physical, mental, moral—that threatened to engulf him; in Marabou Stork Nightmares, the dessicative process is long since past. After a short life marked by violence, drug abuse, and virulent madness, narrator Roy Strang lies enfolded in the unyielding and impenetrable folds of a coma. Suspended in a limbo between life and death, his damaged brain constructs one last, elaborate fable in a bid to assert its existence—a safari fantasy, the tale of Roy, great white hunter, engaged in a noble quest to eradicate the malignant, carnivorous, mythical Marabou Stork. Both the product and victim of a brutal home life and Edinburgh's meanest streets, young Roy has discovered a new world of comparative purpose and balance within these fevered imaginings.
Buffered from the litany of miseries he's left for others to contend with, what's left of Roy's mind revels in the delusion: Within the confines of his head, Roy is free—and sane, by his definition—for the first time. But as he painstakingly constructs his elaborate mindscape, the ugliness of his past begins to seep in around the edges, until the consequences of his misspent life threaten to destroy even this miserable refuge.
Stylistically and thematically, Nightmares echoes the early work of Iain Banks. Roy Strang could be the twin brother of The Wasp Factory's obsessive, delusional protagonist, and NightmaresÂ even shares a key plot device—a comatose narrator—with Banks' The Bridge. But while The Bridge's central character courageously thrashes his way back to consciousness and symbolic spiritual rebirth, Roy Strang runs in the opposite direction, along the proverbial highway to hell, laughing all the way.
Nightmares, for all its inventiveness, is by no means a pretty book; its characters, including its unconscious protagonist, ooze the bone-chilling ugliness that accompanies abandonment by both sanity and hope. In stark relief to Trainspotting's wasted but charming antihero, Renton, Roy Strang stands as nihilism's poster child—a figurative black sun, sucking those around him into his destructive gravitational pull before imploding. In a larger sense, Nightmares stands as an odd, indirect social critique outlining the sick symbiosis between individual, familial, and social pathologies.
Â This review originally appeared in Your Flesh #37