Look, there is a beautiful Florida, the kind you see in Tampa bars on service industry night—caramel flesh, claret lips, kohl eyes—or South Beach 24/7. This is the Florida of hulking Adonises who raze muscle fiber to erect pantheons, the soaring buttress of a bicep, the graceful climb of the gastrocnemius, the asphyxiating dome of the well-built chest all carved in honor of the human form. Every finely toned buttock, every taunt underarm is the product of a caloric holocaust, coupled with targeted destruction and the staunch blockading of whatever gastronomic sins one had allowed one’s self.
Here is the thing about achieving what some write off as “superficial” beauty, which most seem not to understand and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins makes its thesis: There is nothing superficial about it. To alter one’s body so completely—and more importantly, to be able to maintain the altered form—requires a holistic effort, from diet to sleep to exercise to the very mindset with which each day is approached. Such all-consuming devotion is usually found amongst the zealots and the slavish, but there are more than a few of the “superficial” beauty type for whom feeling the burn is akin to immolation. These are the kind whose callipygian body is capped with hair like dry straw, who burn down on treadmills and beach paths like great human candles, whose spornosexual desires result in daily injections and the kind of teeth-powdering, proptosis inducing, lactic-acid-bathing exertion such drugs not only require—it is a great myth that steroids beget results sans work—but allow.
In short, there are people out there for whom the pursuit of a particular kind of human perfection is far from somatic; it is their singular purpose, their well-muscled, cut, bronzed, engorged and grossly vascular ipseity. These are the beautiful horrors born when the noble goal of self-improvement becomes anomic.
These are the people drowning in Narcissus’ pool.
How we look is the central obsession and crucial vice of Irvine Welsh’s Miami-set novel. It may seem unusual, for an author famed for his narcotizing prose and patina of irreverent filth, to deal so forwardly in something so sun-drenched, so clean. Welsh possesses the ability to render the distasteful populist, but Sex Lives makes shock—not meant here as a pejorative—carry a weight which the affect is simply not meant to.
Welsh is talking about something important, and he is doing so with a not unsubstantial amount of fucks, off-color commentary and enormous plastic cocks. There is a certain loosely connected tribe of authors—favorites of “edgy” OKCupid men, frustrated young quasi-anarchists and freshman dorm room revolutionaries—who all seek admittance into the William S. Burroughs school of shock lit. They conflate confrontational stylings with antagonistic, confuse the ability to jar with the ability to alter. Their books are consumed, espoused and trotted out as secret sigils, before being hidden sheepishly behind the bookshelf or sold into second hand life to begin the cycle anew. They are doomed to a hyper-accelerated life cycle because shock, by its very nature, is not a sustainable reaction; this inherent vice renders them dobsonfly literature.
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins avoids such an ignominious fate. Welsh’s primary narrator, South Beach personal trainer Lucy Brennan (more on her later), appears the typical shock protagonist, but her project and narrative counterpart, corpulent artist Lena Sorenson, reads as erudite. Sex Lives contains multiple, and multifarious, voices, more than one could say for some of the novel’s assumed peers. That Welsh is putting said voices to an issue which sits at the combustible crossroads of cultural mores and medical science, obvious pulchritude and superficially hidden horror, is Sex Lives’ true strength; it is a fine melding of subject and author.
Firebrand Brennan, barreling down the Julia Tuttle Causeway in a lacerating rain with the frustrations of unquenched sexual desire smoldering in her pelvic girdle, comes across a pair of fleeing men—striking one—just as the downpour slows. She subsequently saves their lives from a contemptuously frail gunman, and the deed is caught on smartphone by Lena. The footage finds its way to the media, and Brennan finds herself an overnight celebrity and Sorenson obsession.
Fame and a VH1 reality show are scuttled, however, when it is revealed that the men Lucy saved where convicted sex offenders, and her gun toting maniac in fact a righteous—and wronged—vigilante. Her heroism is subverted for political means, and her abrasiveness flairs until she has burned down whatever chance for Jillian Michaels status she ever had.
Lena, enamored of the power and beauty Lucy projected while straddling a terrified, pissing-himself would-be Punisher, becomes Lucy’s client. Lucy, for her part, is both disgusted and enamored with her new ward, oscillating wildly between revulsion for what Lena is and voracious lust for what she was. Lena, deftly set up as the stalker, has her role wholly subsumed—in one of the novel’s many, and important, re-polarizations—when Lucy, frustrated by Lena’s lack of progress, shackles the artist in an abandoned downtown high rise.
Lose 200 pounds, regain your life.