The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh

29/07/06, The Times

Let’s call a spade a spade: Welsh’s sixth novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, is so awful that, to paraphrase James Wood, it invents its own category of awfulness. His first novel, Trainspotting, was hailed as the herald of a new voice, energetic, dissonant, the true sound of a literary dissident charting with raw authenticity the slimy underbelly of the drug culture that blights so much of Scotland’s inner cities. The book was a runaway success, the film version by Danny Boyle firmly put it on the cultural map and Welsh found out that the trick could be repeated forever on the reading middle-classes who, it would seem, cannot get enough of urban hell, especially represented in Scottish orthography, on their pages. Five novels later, Welsh is still doing his substance-abuse-in-Edinburgh shtick, but now it has become a gratuitous, meaningless brand – look carefully and you can almost see the TM sign – ironically emptied of all authenticity, its inhabiting contexts forced and false. Like most such products it needs to go straight into the bin.

For a book with that title, trying to cash in shamelessly on the cultural surge in celebrity chefs and cookery shows, it is neither about bedroom secrets, nor about master chefs but about 23-year old Danny Skinner, an Environment Health Inspector at the Edinburgh Council, in charge of restaurant inspections. Is he a swearing, hard-drinking, womanising, vomiting, dry-heaving, angry, jittery, masculine, roughboy? What do you think? (Although Welsh puts volumes of Baudelaire and Verlaine on his bookshelf to tell us that he’s actually really, really sensitive). Danny Skinner develops an irrational and extreme hatred, represented by filling up pages with the word HATE (and ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’, of course, otherwise how can one get ‘true’ urban grit-lit?) repeated in upper case, for the nerdy Brian Kibby who comes to work at the Council. Skinner is angry because his mother refuses to tell him who his father is. So angry that he develops a drinking problem. He puts a hex on Kibby whereby the poor Star-Trek and games-obsessed geek suffers for all Skinner’s excesses of alcohol abuse, footie fights, and other misdemeanours. Kibby becomes so ill that he needs a liver transplant and has to give up his job. Meanwhile, Skinner’s search for his father takes him to San Francisco and back again. He understands what he has done to Kibby and tries to undo it. And unknown to him, the search for the missing father looks all set to end far closer home than he would have thought.

Welsh is keen to tell us that he is rewriting both Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde, so with the subtlety he has become renowned for, he namechecks them in an act of furious oversignalling. It makes you want to sue Wilde and Stevenson for having had the misfortune to fall into the hands of this ‘writer’. For this book is a toyshop of pure MDF cutouts. The characters, situations, contexts, storyline, prose, everything is so risible in its utter inability to convince on even the most rudimentary levels that it would appear Welsh has telephoned in his writing on a very bad line. Characters lurch from one mood or emotional state to another, not in any convincing, I-contain-multitudes sort of way, but with the jerkiness of marionettes being manipulated by a puppeteer who has no idea of what he’s doing. Every single premise in this book – the health inspections by the council, the restaurant trade, the basic nuclear family unit – is such a stunning model of unconviction that this should become a mandatory textbook of how not to write fiction.

At one point Skinner is asked why his absurdly well-stocked bookshelf doesn’t have any Scottish fiction. He replies, ‘Not for me. If I want swearing and drug-taking, I’ll step outside the front door and get it.’ Tongue-in-cheek? No, something far more insidious. Having made ‘swearing and drug-taking’ coterminous with Scottish fiction, he both inscribes himself as its truest practitioner and trivialises the Scottish writers who have brought British writing whatever blazing magnificence it possesses: Grassic Gibbon, Gray, Kellman, Galloway, A.L. Kennedy, Ali Smith. He is a low slur to that company. This is a demeaning book because it cants the reader’s soul downwards, making it feel complicit with the writer’s dishonest gulling and short-changing of his readership, telling them this lazy, dishonest, appallingly written rubbish is the real thing while laughing all the way to the bank as a result of our gullibility. Those howls of rage from the excoriating moralist of his early years have turned to the empty baying of a dog. Take him away.