ARTYFACTS: Day 1 - Round 1 - Welsh and Palahniuk

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day 1 - Round 1 - Welsh and Palahniuk

Ok we're officially off. My first actual Festival event. Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk drew a sell out crowd in the Corn Exchange. When Chuck (I'll use this as his surname is a bitch to type) asked how many of the largely young audience had NEVER been to a literary event before - a third of the audience raised their hands. An excellent start. This is exactly what a Festival should be doing - appealing to and developing future audiences.

Chuck is famous for live readings of his short story Guts, which is so graphically disturbing that many have fainted at the events. He didn't read Guts but was true to form, distributing Japanese scent cards (actual pic) with a burning meat smell. As we all held our steak-like card, he read from his new book Hot potting, about hot geysers in the US where tourists fall in and get boiled alive, a kid and his dog get boiled to soup - you get the angle...

A little aside. My dad (a policeman) once told me of how he had to attend a reported suicide. A woman had dropped an electric bar heater into her bath. It did indeed kill her but continued to function and boiled her body in the bath for many hours. Alarmed by the smell the neighbours called the police, and when my father went to remove her ring (for identification) her finger came off, like an overcooked chicken leg. This is the sort of story that Chuck adores.

Irvine's excerpts from his soon to be published Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, was on altogether more familiar territory for me. It's set in Edinburgh, my home town, and one of the pieces centred on the Central Bar in Leith, which was one of my own drinking haunts. He swayed his hips and waved his arms around, and literally acted out the drunken scenes in his now well known Scottish vernacular. I wasn't that taken with the writing. At times cliched ('it hit him in the chest like a bolt of lightening') and often over-stated. Welsh has never really lived up to the early promise of Trainspotting, but even that, although giving voice to a side of Scotland that had never been voiced before in its current vernacular, was a thin narrative.

The readings were fine but the event sprang into life during the interview and Q&A session. Strangely, so many people were wandering in and out to the toilet, that it was at times more like a party than Festival event. But this was an audience with a difference. A good thing, as many literary events are terminally dull and over-polite with fawning middle-aged fans, predictable questions and a rush for the book signing. These kids were certainly admiring but their questions were totally irreverent:

Have you ever stolen a story from another book and used it in your work?

What story have you heard that would make you physically wretch?

This was a night of strong accents (even the interviewer had a strong Ulster accent) and strong writing about strong subjects. However, the interviewer's questions were at times pedestrian. Do you admire each other's work and do you have a shared sensibility? What did he expect from that - no I hate the bastard and think he writes like a ten-year-old!

Irvine was, I think, himself, swearing away as if it were a chat in the pub. I saw many in the audience bristle when he claimed that Standard English was a 'bureaucratic, weights and measures' sort of language, compared to the more fluid vernacular Scots. They may have been young, but they're well off and well mannered, and still felt uncomfortable when hearing this typeof claim and Welsh's machine-gun swearing.

Chuck was more of a showman, with clearly prepared answers. He told a story of how one book signer had brought him polaroids of old dead men who had died in his peep-show parlour. There were further gruesome stories about foetuses. It's not that I'm sqeamish, just a little tired of pub anecdotes masquerading as literature. Both authors suffer from being stuck in a world of tall tales. Palahniuk, in particular, was quite open about the efforts he goes to to gather such tales - self-help groups, hanging around late at parties, sex chat lines etc. This often defines, but also limits, their work. The adolescent anecdotes, each more horrific than the last are amusing but ultimately empty.

This was an audience as much at ease with film and TV as with books. Chuck even admitted that he thought the brightest minds of our age were not writing books but working in film and TV. This is the sort of statment that drives older, literary event attendees mad, but he's probably right.

4 stars


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