T2 Trainspotting awakens a cult classic — and the fourteen-year-old in me

The opening line of the novel Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, reads: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.”

I only read the book once, fourteen years ago, but I remember that line simply because I was, at the time, so pleased with myself to have been able to decipher it. The book had been given to me by a classmate who, like several others, had given up after a few pages, unable to make heads or tails of the Scottish dialect in which it’s phonetically written. Properly intimidated, I started the book, and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to comprehend — as long as I read in a Scottish accent in my head. The sweat was lashing off of Sick Boy; he was trembling. What’s so hard about that?

Suddenly, I was sophisticated, a literary and cultural elite among my simpleton peers. I had already seen the film — the book could hardly be more different — and had fallen in love, an instant member of its cult following along with several of my friends. But my ability to handle Welsh’s phonetic writing made me fancy myself much more of a Real Fan than them — I get it. I know these characters and the way they talk. It’s not so hard.

Indeed, it was the film, more than the book, that I worshipped then, at the age of seventeen. It helped that seven years earlier, when the film was released, I could recall my parents declaring, unprovoked, that it was Not For Kids, that there was no way they’d let a frame of it appear before my eyes. A mystique was born, but died almost immediately as I got distracted by the tumultuous onset of middle school, and I forgot about Trainspotting until it reentered my awareness in the attic of a friend’s house, where a few of us sat, stoned, watching Renton go from collapsing in a drug-addled apartment with holes in the walls, to sticking opium pellets up his ass in front of another man, to cooking up heroin for the mother of a baby whose corpse lay in the next room.

The shock was irresistible, as was the anthropological value of seeing what my parents wanted kept from me all those years earlier. But Trainspotting struck much more of a chord in me than it did a nerve. It was saturated with cool, rich in the kind of sentimentality that could almost bring to tears the bundle of hormones that I was at the time. The characters smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses. The soundtrack offered Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, edgy rock stars that weren’t old enough for my parents to have grown up with, but old enough for me to wield their vintage value for punk points among my peers. And the disdainful social commentary in Renton’s opening monologue was tailor-made for a suburban teenager like me.

But what got me right in the heart about Trainspotting was its presentation of friendship. The young men at the center of the film hurt each other in ways that verge on the sociopathic. But friendship in Trainspotting, at least until the end, is unconditional. No matter how much they antagonize each other, the conclusion is always, “He’s a mate, so what can you do?” At the time, I was blind to the notion that this state of affairs could have been meant as commentary on the artifice of such relationships, the disingenuousness of calling them friendships. I was nearing the end of high school, felt that my friends were all I had, and that I was on the precipice of entering adulthood with them and possibly losing them in the process; never has there been a time when the notion of friends as family — that these are my people, no matter what we may put each other through — was more appealing to me.

Fourteen years and probably twenty viewings later, a sequel has appeared. Its existence, as I’m sure it did to all die-hard fans of the original, gave me pause. The sequel has a basis in Porno, Irvine Welsh’s followup to the original novel, but still, the awkward question was: Why? What motivated the actors, director, and producers to invest in a film like this in 2017? Trainspotting didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger. It never suggested franchise potential. It had been twenty damn years. And perhaps most puzzlingly, the sensibility of Trainspotting isn’t really part of the cultural zeitgeist anymore. Heroin chic is no longer in style, neither in terms of fashion nor of demeanor. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed weren’t exactly contemporary at the time, but were recent enough for teenagers to think they were cool — not so much anymore. And Britain is no longer such a smoky, druggy mess.

I went to see it last week, with a friend I’ve only known a few years but for whom the original is just as meaningful as it is for me. I didn’t go hoping for a compelling plot — though the plot was fine. I, and I suspect everyone else, went for a reunion with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, and the movie scratches that itch just fine. Not every friendship endures the way it did in the original, but watching the characters interact again — watching Ewan McGregor come down from the heights of the Hollywood A-list to show that he still cares about the fans of the cult movie where he got his big break — couldn’t have been more rewarding.

Danny Boyle liberally peppers the movie with references to the original, whether subtle — Renton recoiling at the site of another decrepit public toilet — or blatant — a generous helping of flashbacks to actual footage from Trainspotting. In this, Boyle is not leaning on a crutch — he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to do, serving exactly whom he should. Because let’s get one thing straight: T2 Trainspotting is not for a new generation, not for today’s seventeen-year-olds. It’s for the people who were seventeen in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when the original was still new or at least fresh. In that sense, the new film is inherently nostalgic.

And that’s okay. I will not worship T2 Trainspotting like I did the original in my adolescence. But I will move on from it with the warm feeling that the characters I loved so much growing up are still alive. In that, the film has done what I feel was its job: to connect the past to the present. Renton updates his “choose life” monologue, now selecting Facebook and Twitter, rather than “compact disc players and electrical tin openers,” as the targets of his disdain — the manifestations of mankind’s existential asininity — and I feel that he has been aging with me all along. Spud discovers writing as therapy, and pens pages upon pages of stories, the text borrowed largely from the original novel. One line, read by Begbie from a piece of notebook paper taped to the wall: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy.”

Writer, wisher, wrangler with anxiety. The modern world can be a head-splittler — sometimes you have to just roll your eyes at it.