Analysis of Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House

Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House (1994) is a collection of 21 short stories and a novella. Many of these stories bear the hallmark of Welsh’s novels in that they often take place in Scotland and have drugs, sex, and random violence as themes. Many of his characters also speak with a strong Scottish dialect, forcing the reader to engage with a culture and style that differs from Standard English. Robert A. Morace, in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (2001), suggests correctly that Welsh’s use of language in Trainspotting (1993), and by extension in later works, is more specific and challenging than is immediately apparent: “Welsh’s linguistic assertion of Scottish identity is in fact an assertion more particularly of a Scottish sub-cultural identity,” specifically, working-class youth culture, whose language is not that of “cultured Edinburgh” (27–28). The cultural identities of the characters and the language they use are intertwined. The dark humor that infiltrates Welsh’s novels can also be found in this collection.

The title story, “The Acid House,” focuses on Coco Bryce, a self-proclaimed football hooligan. The acid of the title refers to the LSD that Coco takes before a lifechanging experience. With a flash of lightning he inhabits the body of a newborn baby, and the souls of Coco and the baby are swapped. This use of fantasy and science fiction is ironic: Coco, in the baby’s body, continues to swear foully, and the body of the oncepowerful Coco has now been taken over by the baby; consequently, Welsh undermines these subgenres through his central antihero.

Nadav Kander/The Guardian

Experimentation with form in this collection is most evident in a section of “The Acid House” when Welsh escapes from realism by deftly combining Coco’s past and present lives. His past is signified with boxes of dialogue spoken by his teachers and father, and these are fitted in across the page interspersed with the repeated word “light.” This playing with form and use of postmodern techniques reflects the effects of LSD on Coco and adds pathos to his characterization. It emerges that the violence he has meted out he learned as a child from the adults around him.

Welsh’s writing returns to the excesses of masculinity in all of his work and manages to value and parody masculinity simultaneously. On the whole, specific masculine, working-class values are repeatedly ridiculed here, yet these values are also portrayed with a certain amount of sympathy. The scorn Coco feels for his new middle-class parents is shared by the reader as Welsh attacks the subterfuge of what it is to be a new man in the 1990s.

The stories in The Acid House are often dependent on Scotland and the stereotype of a Scotsman as a reference point for the various narratives, but this is not left unquestioned. In a sequence that is evocative of Trainspotting, Euan, the narrator of “Eurotrash,” says, “The Scots oppress themselves by their obsession with the English which breeds the negatives of hatred, fear, servility, contempt and dependency” (17). This story is set in Amsterdam, implying that this distance gives the narrator the chance to reflect objectively on the politics of his victim status. The role played by the Scots in their own colonization is a theme that recurs elsewhere in Welsh’s work, notably in Trainspotting.

Welsh also moves away from Scotland in stories such as “The Last Resort on the Adriatic,” in which the narrator Jim commits suicide in a memorial to his dead wife. In “Where the Debris Meets the Sea” Santa Monica is the setting, but there is a return of sorts to Scotland as Welsh satirizes celebrity culture and gives Kim Basinger and Madonna improbably strong Scottish accents. Their manufactured importance is ridiculed as they sit lusting after unknown noncelebrities who live on schemes (housing projects) in the working-class district of Leith, and finally they realize they can only dream of going there for a holiday.

This collection is also exuberant in its focus on the so-called underclasses. In “Granny’s Old Junk,” for example, both the grandson and Granny are heroin addicts. Drug use is a recurring area of interest in Welsh’s work, and his refusal to moralize about the dangers for the chemical generation means that he avoids preaching. This may be read as irresponsibility or, conversely, as a refusal to simplify a problem endemic in contemporary British life. Welsh is an adult writer, and he allows the reader to judge his characters from a rarely seen perspective. These stories offer a glimpse of another culture, and they challenge the metropolitan English middle-class sensibility. The fiction of a romantic Scotland (as a satellite of England) is reversed.

Paul McGuigan directed a film in 1998 titled The Acid House, based on three of these short stories: “The Granton Star Cause,” “The Soft Touch,” and “The Acid House.”

Morace, Robert A. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. New York: Continuum, 2001.
Welsh, Irvine. The Acid House. London: Cape, 1994.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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