The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, by Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape RRP£12.99, 480 pages
Irvine Welsh’s novels can mostly be described as tales of dark, dirty realism, experienced as a sequence of highs and hangovers, binges and comedowns. The books are peopled by foul-mouthed schemers, self-medicating low-lifes, addicts; usually Scottish and nearly always hooked on heroin (Trainspotting, 1993), pills (Ecstasy, 1996), sex (Porno, 2002), booze-before-breakfast (The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, 2006), cocaine (Crime, 2008), and sometimes a combination of them all.
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is also about addiction. But instead of drink and drugs, Welsh turns his attention to America’s gym fanatics and their polar opposites: the obese who can’t stop pigging out on “antifood: cookies, candy bars, TV dinners, ice cream, chips”.
Personal trainer Lucy Brennan is a cold-hearted chick who likes her sex hard and her exercise harder. “Hardass Training. No Excuses, Just Results – Be The Best You Can Be!” it says on her business card. In the body-obsessed, sun-kissed world of South Beach, Miami, she uses some of her kick-boxing skills to disarm a gunman who is attempting to shoot two fleeing men on a highway. Her bravery is filmed by Lena Sorensen – “a small fat chick . . . Like all overweight people you can only speculate on her age” – and the footage turns Lucy into an overnight media sensation. Lena, a lonely, failing artist, develops an infatuation with Lucy and signs up for her personal training sessions. The scene is set for a classic stalking narrative but it is in fact Lucy who becomes consumed by Lena.
Welsh, who now lives in the US, never fails to shock, so it’s no surprise when things turn nasty. As Lena ignores her dietary advice, secretly scoffing junk food, Lucy’s methods become cruel, while her interest in Lena grows inexplicably sexual. She imprisons Lena, with only a home gym for company. On an enforced starvation diet, Lena is “to lose an average of ten pounds per week”. It isn’t pretty – she is chained to a pillar and has to defecate into a container – but the fat disappears. Throughout, the story of conjoined twins and their planned separation plays out in the news, reflecting the unhealthy alliance between Lena and Lucy.
Welsh’s depiction of the south Florida landscape evokes a sense of sun-soaked desperation as bleak as any Edinburgh heroin den. The story Welsh partly wants to tell is that of America’s obesity epidemic: more than a third of adult Americans are now classified as having the condition. Disappointingly, as Welsh mostly shuns plot and character development, the book amounts to a gluttonous feast of nihilistic mayhem, narrated by a pair of vain, manipulative, self-pitying characters almost entirely blind to their own sadism.
The excitement of Welsh’s writing derives from the perverse glee he takes in our lowest obsessions. His best effects are comic, and rely on sharp turns and a profane finish. Approaching a nightclub, Lucy says of Lena: “She gets the ‘who dat retard’ look from the gangbanger doorman at the velvet rope outside Club Uranus . . . Yes, I’m with a fat chick and if you’re obese in Miami Beach you might as well be in the advanced stages of leprosy”. An unruly sprawl it may be, but The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is, nevertheless, a compulsive read.