Is it possible to adjust one’s perception of a familiar literary character enough that – for instance – an icon of mindless destructiveness can be repositioned as a sleekly successful pet of the art world? That’s the imaginative leap required by The Blade Artist, in which Francis Begbie, the merciless villain Irvine Welsh first loosed on the world in Trainspotting, has found both love and success via a prison art therapy programme.
Now married to his American art tutor Melanie, and father to two young daughters, he has left behind Edinburgh’s underworld – and with it various exes and children – for a new life in California. His artworks, sculptures of celebrities with added scarring and mutilations, might reference his previous life of violence, but virtually everything else has changed: Begbie no longer drinks, gets his kicks from salsa dancing, and even goes by a different name, Jim Francis.
If this most rage-fuelled and conscience-free of antagonists never seemed over-burdened with hidden depths, the decision to reorient him gives Welsh access to areas that play to his sardonic strengths: the ghoulish trade in artwork by famous killers; the prurient fascination of the chattering classes with grimmer, needier lives; and the parallels between the cathartic rush of self-expression and the cathartic rush of hurting people. It might be commonplace for artists to wax lyrical about the violence in their work, but Jim Francis knows the realities of both killing and creating. His new existence makes literal Flaubert’s maxim “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Begbie has made this choice for real – although not, as it turns out, for good.
The idea of Begbie as an in-demand cultural figure is clearly one that Welsh enjoys. While Begbie is far from an autobiographical creation, it’s no stretch to imagine his creator can relate to the experience of having one’s past and background made exotic by strangers, and to the irony of attaining success and comfort via art that portrays the opposite.
Mockery of the art world’s values, however, is not where this book comes to rest; and nor is California. Just as his new show is set to open, news from Edinburgh propels Jim Francis swiftly back to the streets, pubs and grudges of his Leith upbringing. Trouble has befallen one of his estranged children, Sean – but as Begbie senior immerses himself in his son’s murky milieu, it’s his own former persona that rises from the depths to confront him.
One of the memorable aspects of Begbie as a character, particularly since clever casting embodied him as Robert Carlyle in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film of Trainspotting, is that he’s no hefty hard man, but a slight, wiry one: cruelty in concentrated form.
This book is similarly fat-free. Short on digressions and sub-plots, it moves fast and angrily. And while Welsh’s sense of humour is never far from the surface, this is very much a work of dark crime fiction rather than comedy or social satire, with a touch of James Ellroy.
Like Ellroy, however, Welsh is concerned with institutional as well as personal amorality; a couple of asides note the overarching inconsistency whereby one-on-one acts of bloody vengeance are criminalised while the state-sponsored kind is glorified. Nor does the reader escape a degree of implication.
Welsh knows perfectly well that, like the patrons for whom Begbie constructs fantasy images of violence, his readers are after a good helping of gore. The narrative plays on a reader response that at once wants Begbie’s rehabilitation to work, and yearns for him to go radge.
You won’t be surprised to learn that there is brutal treatment here, graphically described. There’s also much that’s sensitively observed, however.
Whether you root for the fragrant Melanie to stand by her man or run for her life may depend on how in touch you are with your own inner Begbie.