A new novel from Irvine Welsh is always welcome, and after revisiting familiar territory in Porno it’s nice to see him take a stab in a new direction, even if it’s not entirely successful. This one is a warped take on the Dorian Gray theme, with two young Edinburgh men sinking into a bitter enmity that produces a strange curse of transference: All the ill effects of the drink, drugs, and sex that are the habits of incorrigible Danny Skinner manifest themselves not in Skinner but in his rival, the nerdy and introverted Brian Kibby. As the truth begins to dawn on him, Kibby vows revenge. All is not entirely as it seems, however, and Welsh uses this material as a launching point for ruminations on life, food, sex, and especially alcoholism and absent fathers. Unfortunately, the writing here just isn’t up to par with some of Welsh’s other works.
The multiple narrators he used to great effect in Porno appear again here, but in Bedroom Secrets he handles them less deftly. Minor characters appear, are introduced by first and last name, give some details of their day, narrate six or eight paragraphs of the story and then disappear, never to be heard from again. Then Welsh will begin in the voice of an additional, omniscient narrator, only to drop into a major character’s voice in an italic aside, then drop back out again, then leave the omniscient voice aside altogether and carry on in the first person with another character. On the whole, it becomes a case of “too many cooks,” with the narrative occasionally reading like a scrapbook of short pieces.
This time Welsh doesn’t rely so heavily on the Scots dialect he has become famous for, and this was a good choice — he’s in danger of stereotyping himself — but he’s obviously less at home with “straight” narrative. Much of it seems forced, and it’s plagued by clichés, odd turns of phrase and strained, mixed metaphors (“Skinner felt something cold bite into him, like a giant insect was crushing his torso in its jaws” — a particularly cold insect?) Overall, Bedroom Secrets could have benefited from another round of rewrites.
And from time to time Welsh feels compelled to remind his audience that he is, after all, the Bad Boy of Scottish Literature, which is both good and bad. When these interludes of grotesque excess appear — the bodily functions, the cartoonish sexual anatomies of the elderly, the anal gang-rape, necrophilia — Welsh handles them with aplomb and they don’t fail to bring a smile to your face, if you’ve got that type of mind. But they feel tacked on. Welsh strives to deliver a mature novel but can’t seem to restrain his inner giggling schoolboy.
And as for the plot? It’s hit and miss. I was looking forward to Welsh’s interpretation of San Francisco (he spent a year or two living here) but Skinner’s quick jaunt to the City by the Bay seems superficial and out of place. The big reveal about Skinner’s missing father is predictable from not too far into the story; still, I didn’t see all the way to where Welsh was going with it. By the end of the book I was satisfied. Nonetheless, this is a flawed work. Welsh fans will doubtless enjoy it, and casual readers of his other works will be happy to find that it isn’t a total re-hash, but as a first exposure to Welsh’s work this novel is likely to leave you scratching your head.