Nights at the circus
The Bullet Trick
Louise Welsh Canongate, 363pp, £12.99
Louise Welsh created quite a stir four years ago with her first novel, The Cutting Room, which thrust its lens into the crepuscular world of the Glasgow art dealer and beyond, into the blacker realms of pornography and snuff movies. Illusion, voyeurism and death were the novel's main concerns, as it lifted the lid on some of the more rarefied fantasies in the human psyche.
Welsh's second novel, The Bullet Trick, broadens the focus. Glasgow, Welsh's native city, still features, but she also takes in London and Berlin, where the main drama unfolds. Glasgow's pervasive gloom complemented the skewed Gothic of The Cutting Room; using Berlin as a setting marks a move towards the burlesque. The Bullet Trick comes straight out of the Cabaret era: it is full of circus acts, stripteases and back-alley trysts, and even features an American dancing girl with loose morals and little regard for the future. Instead of having an art dealer as a narrator, it has a magician, a down-at-heel Glaswegian conjuror who is making one last weary attempt to gain recognition.
Welsh, however, is up to many of the same old tricks, and her second novel's climax is remarkably similar to that of her first. But whereas Rilke, the dry, shambolic narrator of The Cutting Room, had considerable presence and charisma, William Wilson, the narrator of The Bullet Trick, is as empty as one of his illusions.
The name is a nod to Poe, whose famous character and his double were both called William Wilson, but there doesn't appear to be much substance to the reference. We meet him returning to Glasgow from Berlin, "wondering how I'd got myself into this mess". The narrative shifts back in time to London, where the mess begins: Wilson's talents are exploited when he is pressured into half-inching an envelope from the pocket of a retiring police inspector. The envelope's murderous secret - which, as in The Cutting Room, has to do with a photograph and a long-forgotten crime - will come back to haunt him later in the story. It also drives our hapless narrator forward to Berlin, where the complications intensify.
Schall und Rauch ("smoke and noise") is the name of the fleapit theatre where Wilson washes up, establishing himself as resident conjuror in what turns out to be a nightly Kabar ett erotisch. Here, Welsh assembles all the materials of a rich, Nights at the Circus-style fabric - glittering façades and shadowy backdrops, abusive strongmen and gold-hearted whores - but unfortunately she fails to weave them together convincingly.
During Wilson's first performance, Sylvie, the American with more than a passing re semblance to Sally Bowles, volunteers to assist him with a trick. Disregarding Wilson's lack of charm, she makes a sexual advance after the show, and when he resists she becomes his partner instead - on stage and, eventually, in crime, along with her sinister "uncle" Dix.
What happens in Berlin is so traumatic that, when Wilson returns to Glasgow, he makes a determined bid for alcoholic oblivion. But he only succeeds in attracting more trouble. The "Glasgow" strand of the narrative is un ravelled in tandem with "Berlin", and Welsh builds up to a duo of fairly suspenseful climactic scenes. The overall effect, however, is disappointingly flat.
Part of the problem is the language, especially the dialogue, which falls short of the Chandlerian wisecrack to which it aspires. There are too many awkward gags ("I'll assist you in what I suspect is your favourite trick, making beer disappear") and too many overwrought metaphors ("He looked like a corrupted oversized Pinocchio, cast out into the world and destined never to be reunited with Gepetto").
The novel's most serious flaw, however, is that the world it presents is simply not convincing. Welsh has spent too much time absorbing other sources at the expense of creating an environment recognisably her own. We do not believe in this conjuror; ultimately, The Bullet Trick's flourish is an empty one, revealing nothing more than a sequence of underwhelming illusions.