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Sloane Crosley Finds The Fun In 'Filth'


I was studying in Edinburgh when Irvine Welsh's Filth was published and the city -- or at least the city's nightlife -- was still in Trainspotting fever. Edinburgh was a place where one could get away with all manner of idiotic after-dark infractions. When life wasn't imitating art, it was drinking and smoking it.

I remember visiting the emergency room with a friend who had managed to embed a shard of pint glass in his palm after an unfortunate altercation with a bar stool. In the waiting room I found a pamphlet about brain tumors. Across the top, in that Trainspotting orange, it read: BRAINSPOTTING. Yes, Irvine Welsh was everywhere both in spirit and in actuality -- he could usually be found sitting in a booth by himself at my local pub. There he was, chips en route to face, the man who produced the single most blush-inducing and visceral novel I've ever read. There's one particularly dark scene involving some acid and a puppy.

Filth aces every category of "dirty" we have. There is, in fact, almost no way to quote from the book without cursing. It sees every needle in Trainspotting and raises it an eight ball. It is a kind of a classic Scottish detective novel only in the way Requiem for a Dream is kind of a love story.

On page one, we meet Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson -- a moral-free zone of a person who subsists on KitKats, sausage and whiskey. As the reader tracks his adventures with casual sex, serious racism and heavy drugs, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a narrator with zero redeeming qualities.

Robertson's flaws are manifold and they come from his gut, where the secondary narrator of the book resides -- a tapeworm. A tapeworm that relays the history of its host in the Queen's English. Naturally. When the tapeworm speaks, the page becomes illegible. Illegible and brilliant. This is Welsh's clever way out of killing his darlings. Instead he mutilates them beyond recognition, leaving passage after passage as they are but with parasitic thought bubbles that run straight down the page.

The first time I read Filth, I sat in Princes Street Gardens and I folded back the cover. This is a book that wouldn't mean anything to anyone on a New York subway but meant everything to the youth of Edinburgh 10 years ago. People knew what was in that book. Reading Filth in public was a sign that you were either a delinquent or, worse, got off on making people think you were a delinquent. Still, even though it was embarrassing -- I couldn't stop reading it. In my Scottish literature classes, we were being plied with Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie. I needed some edge.

But for me it's ultimately not the language or the book's reputation that makes it such a guilty pleasure. It's the structure. The thing about Filth is that it's not a great book. I know it's not a great book. It's completely engineless. There's a murder that kicks things off but that's really a red herring for this meandering character study.

Filth is a bulky, rusty car Welsh just put in neutral and pushed off a cliff. So if you like some direction in your fiction, a bit of suspense and a pinch of plot ... well, you'll need to look a little further. However, if you're the kind of person who might find it amusing to watch a rusty car careen into a garbage dump of filthy phonetics and explode into a strangely beautiful ball of flames, Filth is the book for you.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Sloane Crosley