The change of scene from Edinburgh to Miami brings some new twists to Irvine Welsh’s well-known territory of violence, compulsion and characters painted with angry broad strokes that makes Welsh an irrepressible and engaging author.
Lucy is a personal trainer that’s the stuff of nightmares: a damaged and violent trainer who channels her rage into her clients puffing away on the treadmill. Lucy’s kick boxing, however, comes in handy after a late night altercation. It’s Lena, a rather wobbly figure on the side of the road, who films the 3am fight and makes Lucy an internet sensation. The next day, Lena enters Lucy’s gym requesting a training programme to help her get rid of the weight she’s put on from comfort eating. Welsh builds on the idea of two characters connected through neurosis and consumption that he established in his previous novel The Bedroom Secrets of the Masterchefs through Lucy and Lena, while chucking in some abuse, girl-on-girl and a lot of calorie counting.
Anyone familiar with Welsh’s work will know that nothing is expressed without excess. Lucy narrates a large chunk of the narrative and the reader certainly isn’t spared her rambling rage that colours the presentation of Miami and our understanding of Lena. Welsh’s skill for writing about drug addiction and alcoholism seems, oddly, more suited to the new focus of Miami body worship and the extreme American obsessions with dieting and fast food dependence. Welsh has more room to play as an outsider in America than tackling more tales of Scottish misery in that canny dialect. The rolling news throughout the narrative, the backstabbing of the Chicago art scene and Lucy’s run-ins with publicity, is fresh with satirical observation.
However, Sex Lives is not going to convert any reader that has an aversion to Welsh’s shouty language, extreme sex scenes or farcical plots. Welsh’s writing thrives on discomfort, cruel humour and provocation that isn’t afraid to alienate the audience. Some may find his writing distasteful or brash, but his commitment to provoking the reader is admirable. Welsh combines trashy story lines with genuine sentiments about how society supports the neurosis and rage that dogs Lucy.
At times, Sex Lives is uneven – Lena’s back-story could do with losing a bit of flab – and the conclusion isn’t the most satisfying, but it’s interesting to follow Welsh covering fresh ground and his latest novel really made me question any future McDonald’s cravings.