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.
Hearing Lucy think is … well, it’s something. Something frightening and breathless and arousing, in that way in which being taken of can be arousing. Lucy thinks as if a treadmill or dental drill were cognizant, a goal-oriented creature for whom base imperatives—run, lift, push, sweat, eat, DO—become mantras become axioms become catechisms. When she speaks, the gamefowl aggression of her inner monologue is driven like cortisone shots into those she is addressing. One can almost see the em dashes, protruding from chests and eyes and throats, after she has lit into them with that same voice with which Tracy Austin broke hearts and track coaches burst inseams.
Her obsession is with numbers, her life governed by a DeLillo-esque calorie-tracking app called Lifemap. Lucy’s sense of urgency is what drives the vast majority of the book, even as the degradation an entropic universe demands causes her eventual dissolution.
At first blush, Lucy is a rather hateful character. This is not just within the confines of Welsh’s novels, which I have been lead to believe are full of such personages (and here your reviewer confesses to having never read a single word of Welsh, not even Trainspotting). No, Lucy is distasteful in her comprehension, astringent even in the synapses. Here is a character so staggeringly Chanticleer—the kind which misconstrues repeated uses of the word “fuck” for attitude—that the screw-faced instinct with which one tosses, say, Chuck Palahniuk into the pit where the paper radicals can devour him, has to be forcibly choked down.
Consider the effort to barrel through your introduction to Lucy akin to the searing workouts she inflicts upon her clients. She’s a personal trainer—in South Fucking Beach, no less! where beauty really means something—and as such would not be insulted by the idea. She understands—hell, practically worships—the notion of “no pain, no gain,” and considers your hatred a compliment. You may hate me now, but you’ll thank me come bikini time …
As in exercise, degradation yields results.
Lucy begins to unravel with the stress of kidnapping Lena, and the seemingly superficial things she does to maintain her shape begin to fall to the wayside. She forgets to punch in her numbers—her all important numbers!—to Lifemap. She pulls a statistic completely out of thin air in a lie to Lena. She finds herself too busy for Lena’s specially-controlled diet and brings fast food poison, only to be admonished for it by the rapidly thinning hostage. In one final epiphany, Lucy casts aside the empirical drive as life force, by which point she has gone from vapid Tough Grrl stereotype to hauntingly-formed skin bender.
Lena, for her part, loses pounds and gains attitude. She slowly but surely edges towards Lucy’s end of the spectrum, until, accelerated by her ordeal and elucidated by her past, she is revealed to be a dynamic personage of creativity and strength—an enviable heroine whom I know no shortage of fellow SAIC grads would happily emulate. By the time she eviscerates Lucy for bringing her grease-soaked fast food, the transformation is practically complete, as is the reader’s.
In absorbing their traits in one another, Welsh melds Lena and Lucy—the Before and After—into one composite human being, their minds and bodies both transmuted permanently. It is only with a combination of their attributes—the insatiable drive, the contemplative thought—that they live anything resembling a happy life.
For a book that appears to make grotesque the fitness-industrial complex, the tacit recognition that the pursuit of aesthetic beauty is not completely without merit or benefit is … a shock.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.