The Blade Artist, by Irvine Welsh

The Blade Artist is one of those sequel novels that you have to get your head around the enormity of the premise in relation to the previous instalments.  It is only after this that you can properly start to engage with the book at hand. 

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This book by Irvine Welsh is from the storyline/ realm of Trainspotting.
The bit you have to bend your brain around is the fact that Begbie is now James Francis. 

Living the good life in California as a successful artist.  Married a beautiful rich and young partner.  Beautiful house, beautiful life, beautiful kids that they dote on.

The title ‘The Blade Artist’ is a double-barrelled meaning.  Part of his art is sculpture of famous people, who’s figures he artfully disfigures with a knife.  Cathartic for him and his buyers. 

An example of the counterbalance of this term is a moment in the story where he had a gun in hand.  Genuinely offended by the lack of class in the weapon, he throws it down in artful/ artistic preference to his knife which he goes on to wield in a ‘comfortable for him, not for the other characters in the scene’ type way.

Actually, there are a few threads to either highlight or untangle in this book, and while I was planning to start elsewhere, the thought above naturally leads me to start with this thought.

The main character, Begbie, is genuinely a prick.  A dangerous, murderous asshole.  No matter how well a book is written, this is a lot of ballast for it to work against, having such an unlikeable main character.

In saying that, more than any book of the Trainspotting series - the world inhabited by the character of Begbie - this book aims to engender in the reader warmth, care and empathy for him. 

And it does this successfully for a while.  There are parts of the book when this is very much the case. 

This is one of the strengths of both the book, as well as the writing.  We get a solid backstory, right back from him being a kid.  His environment, his influences, the fight in him, the frustration, the fear, the anger.  A rake of decisions, advice and ’guidance’ that led him to the path he found.  We also see elements of the character that are thoughtful, thankful, protective, sensitive, and genuinely intelligent - something shown a number of times through the book.

The first two-thirds of the book builds up serious potential for empathy, however even within these moments, as much as when the last 3rd of the story hits  (and ‘hits’ is probably the appropriate term), there is an undeniable aspect that came to me finally after flitting uncomfortably around me for a few days, trying to find purchase. 

Whether he is being kind to someone, confronting them, deciding the path ahead, it is always on his terms.  There is no ability for him to not be in control.  To go Dr Seuss on this, ‘he doesn’t like it, no not one little bit.’

I should say that I delineate this character facet and take this as being separate from the action in the story.  There are a lot of instances when he would have wanted things otherwise, however his interaction with his surroundings, and his care, or otherwise, for the things going on, are up to and controlled by him. 

Much of this is invoked by his history, and how the other characters understand him in relation to it.  He is often treated in the first two thirds of the book like an undetonated bomb.  People prod and poke and try to elicit a reaction, but his heart is not there in that work anymore, so he breathes through it, does the exercises he had learnt in order to rise above his darker impulses, and moves on.  Until.

I’m going to flit away from thought for a moment.

Not as I have finished with it, but this deviation helps me.  The path down the previous thought is the bit that had me stalling over how to approach this review.  This is because it very hard to talk about the book, its trajectory, and give more opinion on the character and the ending from this point about 2/3rds of the way through the book without producing a mass of spoilers. 

I fear it’s gonna happen anyway, but shall try to keep as vague as possible for the potential readers among you.  Suffice to say that he’s like a bear being poked, and the choice from a critical moment sets the scene for the final third of the book, which I will not spoil, but will have an opinion on.

The premise of the story is that he is loving his new and successful life in California.  Then he gets a call out of the blue from his sister in Edinburgh to let him know that a son of his, from a life he barely connects with or cares for, has been killed.  Brutally. 

He travels back to his old stomping grounds with the plan to pay respects, do the right thing and then head back to California and his new life as soon as humanly possible.

The killing of his son is heavily related to characters from his old life he has escaped, all of which still have a stake in the underworld he’s moved on from.  There are also new players and new power dynamics, as well as old grudges and at times old scores to settle. 

While he starts off intending to float above and away from all of that, everyone else in Edinburgh and in his old life think different.

Their intent to get him embroiled back in the mix of their world(s) is the weight of so much expectation, combined with family pressure to avenge his son, his reputation, and the character trait of not wanting to give an inch/ to have things his own way, as alluded to above.  

There is also the fact of being away from the influences of his new life, being back in the heart of his old one, and some extraneous elements thrown into the mix.  All of these elements press against his intent, and in many ways the intrigue of these dynamics serve as the strongest sections and themes of the story.

As a minor example, there’s one thread of this which is about the intense frustrations of a good overseas phone he can’t seem to charge and a horrible cheap and unreliable new local phone he buys as a short-term solution.  It is a small factor, but these are the little things that can send people over the edge.  It is well constructed.  It brings to mind Michal Douglas’ character in the movie Falling Down, when he breaks at being 5 minute late to order the breakfast menu at McDonalds.

There’s a number of aspects like this that both work well and also put on display the quality of the writing.  I have read a range of books by Irvine Welsh before, and will read more.  He’s a seriously good writer.  I like his stuff.  I actually like the idea that he most likely couldn’t give a shit about whether I liked it or not.  It’s a good thought whether true or not, and helpful, as this was not my favourite novel of his by a reasonable margin. 

Saying that, I like the emotion he puts into the books.  The dialogue is here – as ever - amazing.  The grit, the care, the nasty, the warm, and overall the connectedness that he provides to his characters is excellent, and again a factor I really liked in this book.  

The Blade Artist fleshes out the character of Begbie in such an interesting and thorough way that it is to be admired.  For all that, I couldn’t get away from the fact that in the end he is one genuinely monumental asshole.  Lots of ballast to work against, as I say.  Hard to engage with and care for the character, despite the good quality effort in the first 2/3rds of the novel which had me doing just that.  Again, hard to balance this or provide any reasoning to that without spoiling the ending.

So.  The ending third... 

I veered away from this above.  However, I have talked about this ‘1st two-thirds/ final third’ split in the story, and I hold to this thought, so better justify it.

Throughout the 1st two-thirds, I was caught up totally in this book.  At the moment of the turn in the story – I think ‘turn’ is more appropriate a term than ‘twist’, it could have gone a lot of ways. 

Or maybe not.  In retrospect, it was the most obvious move, and also the one that the punters and aficionados of the Trainspotting world most likely would have been barracking for. 

The books probably did end as a crowd pleaser.  I would have preferred other endings that had more promise and interest which were in the set-up of the story.  However, I very much get the reasons why it went the way it did, as well as the likely crowd-pleaser element.

I don’t think that I was disappointed in the path of the turn taken as much as with the extent of where it went afterwards.  The extent of this went a long way against the interesting premises and the potential options not chosen. 

It’s still well written and worth reading, but this aspect, and that of the ballast the book has to pull against with the main character are significant negatives for me.  However, they don’t outweigh the positives.  It maybe didn’t need to be measured in both positives and negatives, yet because of the path it took, I do.  If this is your genre, or your writer, it’ll be a page-turner throughout, and well worth picking up.  I still enjoyed it also, just not anywhere near as much as I was expecting 2/3rds of the way through reading.

Essentially this is a ‘can a leopard change its spots’ novel.  Unfortunately, in the end the tension in this question turned out to be a lot more interesting than the answer.  Which, in an otherwise interesting and always very well-written book, still left it as a decent read, but for mine one that – literally in the end – fell away from its own potential.

   - A review, Chris O’Malley