Grotesque and self-absorbed characters? Check.
Inventive and prevalent profanity? Check.
A dark and fearless sense of humour? Check.
Gratuitous and queasy sex scenes? Check.
There can be no doubt; we are diving deep into Irvine Welsh territory. But while some aspects of Welsh’s work haven’t changed, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins breaks new ground for the author. It is his first novel to only feature point-of-view narration from female characters, and also his first novel from a fully American perspective. It’s a raucous ride through the world of fitness in the sweaty underbelly of Miami, and a look at the nature of co-dependence and the power of self-image and repression.
Lucy and Lena run in very different circles in Miami. Lucy is a hard-line fitness trainer, despising her clients, hooking up at anonymous nightclubs and obsessively tracking her calorie intake and expenditure on her phone; while Lena is an overweight and shy but talented artist who has fallen into bad habits after a breakup. Their paths cross when Lucy foils an attempted murder on the highway which Lena films, making Lucy a minor celebrity. In an attempt to get away from the intrusive press, Lucy makes Lena her pet project, determined to do whatever she can to break those bad habits, even if that means kidnapping and chaining her to a pillar like an animal.
Lucy’s disgust for her clients manifests itself in a desire to pull everything about them apart and then raise them from the ashes as a sleek, fully improved machine. In some ways, this is how Irvine Welsh deals with his own characters. He has a great way of introducing a thoroughly repellent character, bringing them to breaking point and then rebuilding them into a better or more sympathetic human. As Welsh piles various stresses and situations onto his creations, the cracks in their brittle facades start to appear, revealing their past and insecurites.
There is none of the supernatural flavouring that energised Filth and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master-Chefs (certainly his most underrated work) but there is a similar fable-esque framework, with the middle act in particular pulling no punches. The news reports in the background about the titular siamese twins serves as an uncomfortable mirror for Lucy and Lena, while Lucy’s vitriol-fuelled emails are neatly interspersed and track her mindset as she slowly loses control. The balance of power works as an effective seesaw, as Lucy starts to fall apart, Lena emerges from her shell and starts to rebuild her life. It ties up a little too neatly at the end for my tastes; but this simply serves to make it his most redemptive and surprisingly optimistic book since Trainspotting, even if the route to get there is an uncomfortable and unsettling one.