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Entries in Sex Lives of Siamese Twins/The [2015] (1)

Tuesday
Feb032015

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (2014)

Never Tear Us Apart

When I first heard the premise for Irvine Welsh's new novel, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, I had flashbacks to Michael Bay's 2013 movie, Pain & Gain: a twisted story of kidnapping and violence, centered on Miami's juiced-up fitness scene. The similarities end there, thankfully, as Welsh joyously fulfills the promise of insight and drama that Bay and company left on the mat.

Lucy Brennan is a no-nonsense fitness instructor who makes a living helping affluent, bored, overweight housewives get into shape (sometimes). After hours, she exorcises aggression and satisfies her need for higher-level self-discipline at a mixed martial arts facility. We meet her on a highway one evening when, in a spontaneous act of seeming heroism, Lucy subdues a gunman firing at people in traffic. Another commuter, Lena Sorenson, captures the event on her cell phone and sends it to the news. Within hours, Lucy's exploits have become media fodder, momentarily sharing America's sensationalism slot with a story about conjoined sisters who want to separate for romantic-relationship reasons.

Not surprisingly, Welsh constructs a similar symbiotic relationship between Lucy and Lena. Initially thrust together by the TV spotlight, Lena soon becomes Lucy's student in all things fitness. The young Minnesota artist has built a nest of bad food and media consumption to cope with a bad breakup, and Lucy is determined to whip her back into a lean, confident creative machine. In the meantime, Lucy tangoes awkwardly with her newfound notoriety, allowing her ego to sidestep the rugged discipline she's applied to her body. Her go-it-alone facade begins to chip the moment endorsement deals and reality-TV gigs enter the picture--and it turns out Lena might have a few things to teach her about coping.

To dive further into the plot would be unfair. Suffice it to say, matters get ugly between our protagonists, who become so bound to each other psychologically that the introduction of handcuffs soon becomes thematically superfluous. What's most interesting here is how Welsh effortlessly adopts the voices of two very different female protagonists, as well as a number of supporting characters. Men are the minority in The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, but the characters' rich inner monologues never sound like they were written by a guy trying to "get" women.

Welsh has dabbled in this area before, most recently in Skagboys, but this is his first book-length go at leaving his own experiences and, indeed, gender behind. Miami fitness culture and the Chicago art scene (which makes several appearances in Lena's journal entries) are about as far away from the Leith/Edinburgh drug vortex as one can travel in terms of culture and affluence, and Sex Lives is free of the Scots dialect that makes novels like Trainspotting, Filth, and Porno such exciting challenges to read. This novel is as nakedly American as one can get, yet there's no mistaking the mind behind the words.

One might assume that the premise and execution (first-person narratives combined with book-within-a-book excerpts and e-mail exchanges) would lend itself to comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis. But Welsh's signature heart is apparent throughout. Lucy's inherent weakness and Lena's inherent strength bleed into and between the lines, and Welsh manages to infuse even the more sexually graphic and disturbingly violent passages with empathy-based tension. He constructs a matchstick tower of emotional stakes from chapter to chapter, constantly leaving us wondering whether he'll knock it down or set it ablaze. Sure, there's a bit of Patrick Bateman in Lucy Brennan's selfish, image-obsessed rantings, but there's regret there, too, and a co-dependant desire for understanding and love.

I hesitate to call the book "sweet", especially due to its shrink's-couch dream of an E.C. Comics ending, but I was utterly wrapped up in the author's examination of how our collective obsession with surface judgments and easy explanations can prevent us from actually getting to know one another. When Lucy becomes fixated on a celebrity exercise guru, for example, she naturally assumes they share a hatred for weak-minded, zero-discipline sheep. The easy path for Welsh would have been to affirm these prejudices through cartoon stereotypes of TV personalities. We're not let off the hook so easily, and the decline of the women's correspondence is hand-to-mouth horrifying.

As I mentioned in my review of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting adaptation, Irvine Welsh ruined reading for me. At a young(ish) age, I fell hard for his dense, low-rent dialects and narco-doused tales of woe, and found most everything else to have the narrative momentum of nutritional information. Welsh breaks lots of new ground in The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, and he's once again given me new lenses through which to view the world.

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins hits US stores today. For more Irvine Welsh, be sure to check out my recent interview on the KtS Podcast!