January 23, 2009
By Stewart Home.
This first appeared at the front of the One World Classics edition of Young Adam published in June 2008.
Alexander Trocchi was born in Glasgow in 1925 and died in London in 1984. His life, as much as his writing, is the stuff of legend. Considered by many to be the most dissolute of the beats, for a time it looked like he was more likely to be remembered as ‘The Lord of Junk’ than as a writer. Trocchi was notorious both for his prodigious chemical intake and pimping his wife Lyn to get money to pay for drugs, But times change and fashions do too; and now ‘Scots Alex’, as Trocchi was known on the west London drug scene, has become an almost respectable literary figure.
For contemporary Scots writers Trocchi’s immersion in the hippie counterculture makes him a more attractive literary figure than the country’s other relatively visible modernists of the fifties and sixties such as Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Hugh MacDiarmid (all principally poets). Irvine Welsh has been quoted as calling Trocchi ‘the George Best of Scottish literature’. Other Scots writers owe even deeper debts to Trocchi; former boxer Barry Graham went as far as penning a Trocchi parody novel “The Book of Man” (1995). In London where Trocchi settled in the early sixties, he towers over those who might be seen as his most immediate English literary heirs such as Ann Quin, B. S. Johnson and Alan Burns. Trocchi did little writing after washing up in London, but he cut a doomed and dashing figure hanging out with the likes of black power leader Michael Abdul Malik, and fellow beat generation stalwart William Burroughs.
There is considerable division over which Trocchi book is his best, but the consensus of opinion is either “Young Adam” (1954) or “Cain’s Book” (1961). “Young Adam” tends to catch the attention of those less interested in drugs and literary experimentation. To date this novel has suffered from being seen as a work of late-modernism cast in the same mould as Beckett, Genet and Ionesco. Trocchi had a hand in publishing all three of these writers when he lived in Paris in the early to mid-fifties.
Trocchi’s importance as a proto-postmodernist has been obscured by what in retrospect appears an arbitrary division between his porn novels and ‘serious’ works. In fact “Young Adam”, the earlier of his two ‘serious’ novels, was first published under the pseudonym Frances Lengel as a ‘dirty book’ by Olympia Press in 1954. The other titles written by Trocchi and published by Olympia under this name are “Helen and Desire” (1954), “Carnal Days of Helen Seferis” (1954), School for Sin (1955) and “White Thighs” (1955).
Trocchi re-edited “Young Adam” removing a number of the erotic passages so that it might be issued by a ‘reputable’ publisher at a time when the use of extended pornographic tropes in literary novels had yet to become an accepted postmodern practice (cf. Kathy Acker, Bret Easton Ellis and Chris Kraus). What Trocchi excised from his ‘definitive’ version of “Young Adam” were principally sex scenes, with one important exception. This is a climactic passage where Trocchi’s narrator Joe recalls an argument with Cathie, his former lover whose dead body he helps drag from a canal at the beginning of the book. Cathie is supporting Joe as he unsuccessfully attempts to complete a novel. Joe describes a day on which instead of writing he made custard and when Cathie comes home this leads to a row. She refuses to eat the custard, so Joe throws it at her as she is taking off her work clothes, then he thrashes her with a rough slat of wood, before proceeding to tip ink, various sauces and vanilla essence over the girl:
“I don’t know whether she was crying or laughing as I poured a two-pound bag of sugar over her. Her whole near-naked body was twitching convulsively, a blue breast and a yellow and red one, a green belly, and all the colour of her pain and sweat and gnashing. By that time I was hard. I stripped off my clothes, grasped the slat of the egg crate, and moved among her with prick and stick, like a tycoon.
“When I rose from her, she was a hideous mess, almost unrecognizable as a white woman, and the custard and the ink and the sugar sparked like surprising meats on the twist of her satisfied mound.”
Trocchi is clearly using a fictional voice and although it might be argued that he shares some of the Joe’s misogyny, he was not prone to the racism implicit in the term ‘white woman’. Likewise Trocchi’s decision not to use Cathie’s name at any point during his description of the “sploshing” and “thrashing” is clearly a conscious device aimed at revealing Joe’s dehumanised ‘nature’ as he reduces the object of his lust and fury to the same base level. This is just one of many passages that demonstrate Trocchi did not want Joe to be a sympathetic ‘character’, or for the reader to trust him as a narrator. Joe’s claim sustained pretty much throughout the second and third parts of “Young Adam” that Cathie met her death accidentally is not necessarily to be believed, just as at the end of “American Psycho” (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis the reader is left uncertain as to whether the narrator Patrick Bateman is a psychotic serial killer or a pathetic fantasist.
Another contemporary New York writer who retrospectively helps illuminate Trocchi’s aesthetic stance here is Lynne Tillman. At the climax of her novel “No Lease On Life” (1998), the narrator Elizabeth Hall is so frustrated by her inability to find any peace in her Lower East Side apartment, that she sends a rain of eggs splattering onto those making noise in the street below her. Tillman’s book is loosely modelled on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1922). The action takes place over 24 hours but the tenor of the work and its denouement mark it as self-consciously postmodern. Tillman and Trocchi who knew each other briefly, share a love of classic modernist literature but at the same time both have moved beyond what even by the early 1950s was an exhausted literary form.
Trocchi’s narrator Joe only admits that he knew Cathie half way through “Young Adam”. Joe claims he’d wanted to focus on his attraction to his subsequent lover Ella, and therefore didn’t explain how Cathie fitted into the overall picture of his life. At this point it is Joe and not the reader who has lost the plot. He is confused and says he killed Cathie: “There’s no point in denying it since no one would believe me”. To underline his sense of disorientation, Trocchi makes Joe speak of police ‘sensationalism’ being reported in the newspapers, a reversal of commonplaces about ‘media sensationalism’. The reader only has Joe’s version of events, and Trocchi goes to great lengths to underline his unreliability:
“It was an odd thing that I, who saw Cathie topple into the river, should have been the one to find her body the following morning at one mile’s distance from where she fell in. I felt at the time that it was ludicrous, so incredible that if Leslie had not happened to come up on deck at that time I should most certainly have refused to accept such an improbable event and tried to thrust her away again with the boat-hook.”
While life is full of coincidences, the plots of novels are the result of conscious design. Most writers would avoid happenstances like the one Trocchi employs here because although it just might occur in life, it isn’t plausible as fiction. Trocchi, of course, uses it to undermine Joe’s believability as a narrator. “Young Adam” has been called an “existential thriller” and compared to “The Outsider” (1942) by Albert Camus, but such descriptions rest on a misreading of Trocchi’s text as being modernist. An unreliable narrator like Joe cannot be an existential protagonist because the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and their various followers, is predicated on notions of authenticity. Joe is not even an authentic bargeman, he is a university drop out who works on the canals for at most a few months.
“Young Adam” is neither an “existential thriller”, nor merely a parody of that genre, but rather an entirely new type of work. Among the many indications that “Young Adam” is a post-modern fiction is the fading away of geographical descriptions as the book progresses. The first part of the narrative is a burlesque of exhausted modernist literature. Trocchi makes his prose deliberately awkward, thereby reversing the tactic he employed to parody pornography, which he wrote both too carefully and too well. Towards the end of “Young Adam” Trocchi has Joe tell us:
“I was out in the street early and found myself walking along Argyle Street in the general direction of the courts. I stopped for a cup of tea at a snack counter, smoked two or three cigarettes, and then continued on my way. As I walked through the town, a strange felling of confidence settled upon me.”
There is a pleasing vagueness to this passage, allowing the reader to draw their own associations from the name Argyle Street. Given that this is one of the longest boulevards in Glasgow – running from the High Street out to Kelvin Grove Park in the west end – a conventional (as opposed to a pulp or post-modern literary) novelist would have described the section of the road they passed along in some detail. It should go without saying that Argyle Street today is very different to the one being invoked when these lines were written more than fifty years ago; to the east it is now littered with pound shops and dominated by the glass hulk of the 1980s St. Enoch Shopping Centre, while the M8 motorway completely separates that part of the avenue from the more residential section to the west. Notice also “Young Adam’s” trademark sloppiness in the passage quoted above, achieved via Trocchi’s self-conscious repetition of words such as ‘street’ and ‘walked/walking’,
Returning to Joe, he is confident he won’t have to answer to the police or courts (or indeed his less sophisticated readers) for killing Cathie. At the end of “Young Adam” an innocent man is condemned to death for the girl’s murder; and Joe’s cold psychotic nature is underlined by his reaction as he watches the drama unfold in court: “The man who was created in the speeches of the procurator was fitted admirably to the crime which the police had invented – a very gratifying thing indeed to see two branches of the public service, the judiciary and the police, work together in such imaginative harmony.” Joe can’t even stay on this train of thought; he breaks to write two sentences about playing pinball in a Jamaica Street dive, then returns to the courtroom to hear the inevitable guilty verdict on the innocent man. Joe is cast very much in the same mould as another of Trocchi’s ‘anti-heroes’, the murderous and lustful Saul Folsrom in “White Thighs”. Both these non-characters owe something to Lee Anderson, the narrator of Boris Vian’s “I Spit On Your Graves” (1946).
“I Spit On Your Graves” was a literary hoax that was first published as if it had been written in English by an Afro-American author called Vernon Sullivan and Vian was merely its translator. In fact there was no Vernon Sullivan, the ostensible author of this work was a figment of Vian’s imagination and the book was written in French. Vian’s first person narrator Lee Anderson adopts a prose style and worldview heavily influenced by Henry Miller and James M. Cain. Although Anderson identifies himself as an Afro-American male, he is able to pass as white and revels in seducing privileged southern girls who have no idea that he is black. These sexual conquests are presented as a form of revenge against the white racists who Anderson tells us murdered his darker skinned brother. However, Anderson’s sexual shenanigans are a mere prelude to him slaughtering two white sisters, Lou and Jean Asquith.
“I Spit On Your Graves” was hugely controversial and there was much speculation about its authorship until the hoax was finally revealed. Trocchi’s greatest success through scandal in the dirty book business was a faked fifth volume of “My Life And Loves” (1959) supposedly written by the philanderer and literary middleman Frank Harris. Again this was Trocchi engaging in a burlesque, he disliked Harris as a middle-brow literary figure and although the book was accepted as genuine upon publication, it was an opportunity for its real author to parody and pillory the man who was supposed to have written it. This is typical of Trocchi’s approach to writing fiction, and the only real exception to it is “Cain’s Book”, which in any case is fictionalised autobiography alchemised into an ‘anti-novel’. The jury is still out on whether “Young Adam” or “Cain’s Book” is Trocchi’s greatest work, but regardless the former remains the best introduction to his writing because it is so much more typical of his proto-postmodernist approach.
December 9, 2008
Denis Browne, Trocchi’s literary assistant in later life, answered some questions on this era.
Andrew Stevens: You’ve detailed your involvement with Alex Trocchi but how did it really come about?
Denis Browne: I’d known Alex for a few years before I started working with him. He’d just had an operation for cancer and decided he needed someone to help run his second hand book business and be a kind of literary assistant to him. This seemed really exciting, and I thought maybe it could even help in getting my writing out there.
I knew him from ’78 till his death in ’84 — which was a massive contributory factor to me finally getting away from heroin. He was the best friend I could have had in those days, but if I could talk to him now, I’d be saying that there are better causes to fight for in life than the Right to be a Junkie.
Andrew Stevens: To what extent were you involved with him?
Denis Browne: It soon became pretty clear that he had a terminal case of writer’s block, and it wasn’t long till I realised that as far as any writing was concerned, it just wasn’t going to happen. He did manage a few lines of an autobiography and we’d occasionally give me an old notebook to transcribe, but that was it.
So we’d go round looking at old books, checking the stall at Antiquarius, maybe buy some books at Christie’s, stop at the pub for lunch. Another day gone and of course a fair amount of heroin was taken.
Andrew Stevens: You mentioned that Alex wasn’t a fan of music and only owned one record, what was that?
Denis Browne: The record in question was ‘Ascenseur pour l’echafaud’, Miles Davis Quintet, Paris 1957.
I’m listening to it now — it’s Miles at his coolest, maybe with a little narcotic assistance. This is from Alex’s Paris phase. Story goes that Miles and his group improvised the soundtrack while watching scenes from the film projected on a huge screen in front of them. Whatever, its an amazing album. Anyway, I found it one day chez Alex, and knowing that contrary to most junkies in my experience, he’d always shown zero interest in music, I asked what’s the story. Typical Alex — he casually mentioned “Oh it was something I was involved in…”, but as always tantalising, and not sure exactly how?!
Trying to explain punk to Alex was one of our few times of total non-communication. I tried to get him to see Sid and Nancy in the context of scagged-out arty youth versus the system, in a harder context than the 50s, but he couldn’t really understand it — he felt he’d fought all the battles he wanted to for “the cause” and by then was retreating/withdrawing into his de Quincey retirement.
Andrew Stevens: What exactly did being his ‘literary assistant’ entail?
Denis Browne: It amounted to zilch in the end in tems of output. Most of the time it meant helping in various ways in the running of his second hand/antiquarian book business. Occasionally he’d haul out old drafts or notebooks which we were going to work through, but it never went anywhere. After about a year, I realised that Alex had a terminal case of writer’s block if you wanted to look at it that way, or — as I prefer to think — he’d said what he had to say and really couldn’t be too bothered about writing anything new just for the sake of it … either way, any hopes I had of attaching my literary aspirations to a Trocchi revival were out the window.
In practical terms — I’d get round to his place 10am or so, we’d shoot up. Have a talk about this’n’that. Go to pub for lunch or I’d go out for quiche. Shoot up again. Talk about what we might do tomorrow. Go to bookstall at Antiquarius. Have another fix. Day over, and so it went on…
Monday morning I turned up and Alex was all excited, saying “Look, I’ve started on an autobiography” and pushed some file paper at me. There were about lines of his admitedly tiny writing, “One morning a young man found himself at the docks in Glasgow…” or similar. It was never heard of again.
Andrew Stevens: There were “years of no new material”, “tales of US Mafia publishing pirates” and “wannabe Dutch film-makers” in the later undocumented years of his life. Can you expand on this?
Denis Browne: Alex was always really big into the stories of his dramatic flight from the US in the early 60s — apparently for forging prescriptions and other junkie misdemeanours. According to him (as he couldn’t legally get back to the US), this meant that he couldn’t defend the copyright on his material — so that various people from Girodias on down were able to pirate/reprint his writing (esp. Helen/Sappho/Thongs) without paying royalties. I don’t recall the exact details, but he always maintained that one of his US publishers was pure Mafia — Castle Publishing or similar?
To be honest I’ve no idea where the truth is here. Obviously Alex would have been an ideal mark for any rip-off publisher — but over the years I cdn’t help feeling there was always the same pattern with Alex’s scenes and stories — it always got fucked up in the end cos the other people were crooks or didn’t understand him. I guess now my feeling is more that in having a habit you’re imposing such a handicap on yourself that its hardly surprising if other people see you as an easy target, you have so little comeback. Plus it also became part of an ongoing “what’s the point of doing anything, you just get ripped off” riff, which tended to justify not doing anything else and could get elaborated into a whole de Quincey thing about the rejected (and opiated) writer turning his back on those who’d failed to understand him.
Again, there was a Dutch film-maker (Argh! Whose name escapes me) who was always desperate for Alex to develop a Young Adam script with him. I was all for it, but Alex didn’t want to know.
Andrew Stevens: How did you feel when Alex came back into fashion in the late 1990s? Were you involved in any of the biographies or the film?
Denis Browne: Obviously I was amazed and delighted by the vibe generated around the Young Adam film and the young (mainly) Scottish writers and artists who were feeling what Alex was about… and I’m confident that where 20 yearrs ago I was resigned to him being a minor footnote, I think he’s in for more recognition. I can confidently say that I had zero input into any of the books or films.
August 14, 2008
Taken from an unused foreword to White Thighs, by Stewart Home.
I tend to think of Alex Trocchi as the original punk rocker. He never lets you down because he always aims to disappoint; in White Thighs (1955) he disappoints almost too well…
There are those who think Trocchi failed to live up to his promise, but I think he lived up to it admirably by self-consciously working towards spectacular failure as a literary figure. Trocchi despised the bourgeois cultural order and in his pornographic works such as White Thighs he mocks it by using his mastery of literary technique for the ends of pastiche and parody. In this his pornographic works are quintessentially post modern, and move both beyond and behind the paradigmatically modernist concerns of his two “serious” literary works Young Adam and Cain’s Book. In terms of prose style White Thighs is better than one might reasonably expect a work of sado-masochistic pornography to be. That said, Trocchi doesn’t bother to construct a credible story or attempt “proper” characterisation; since such things would undermine his revolutionary intentions.
On one level White Thighs is a tale of bondage and flagellation. At the age of 12 the narrator Saul Folsrom becomes infatuated with his governess Anna. He wants her to spank and dominate him. He even commits murder for her; but soon afterwards his American guardians ship him to England to complete his education. Unable to find sexual satisfaction in women other than Anna, Folsrom returns to the United States with the intention of finding her. At which point he explicitly states he is what he is due to Anna, that she’d made him a murderer:
“For that is what she had made of me, and the mould, once set, was firm and unchangeable: I experienced no desire to possess, nor to mould in my own likeness another woman. I felt only an urgent necessity to be absorbed, used again even to the point of murder, and to draw my identity from every act done of another’s necessity. The memory of Anna electrified me. She alone, of all the women I had met, was fit to receive such homage.
“Had she not made me commit murder for her? I nurtured the memory, with as much loving care as a poet gives to his creation. I worshipped her. I imagined myself prostrate before her. I buried my head between her soft thighs, knowing their strength. I asked her to judge me, to control me, to administer my punishment. I loved her, called to her in my dreams that I would kill my uncle all over again. She had to exist. She could not be dead, or worse, grown weak and as insipid as the women I met at college. That would be a betrayal. Men have destroyed gods for less.”
After Fulsrom has “freed” Anna so that she might “dominate” him, by murdering her tyrannical husband, he rushes off to tell her all about the killing only to be disappointed by her response:
” “I told you I loved him!”
” “You told me he had the power of a beast over you. I shot the beast.”
“She was looking at me as a rabbit watches a snake.
“Something stirred in me. I knew that I had to act now or not at all. Coldly, with calculation, I slapped her across the face.
“I was now ready to act at every moment in accordance with a new attitude. She had loved Inez. I had thought about that night after night as I waited to slay him.
She had loved me in a different way.
“My act of slapping her across the face had the effect of annihilating the past, of reversing the relation between us. In the future, she would obey. It was not what I wanted, not what I had intended, not the situation for which I had made a thousand preparations while I was separated from her, but I had come to realize clearly that it was the only effective way—at least for the moment, for she was not ready to be that woman of my imagination—of putting things in suspension; I should not have lost irrevocably.
“Her expression had changed.
“The fear was still there, but it had undergone a subtle modulation:it was no longer stark panic, and all hatred had gone from her eyes. It was as though she were waiting for me to act again.
“Slowly, holding her gaze, I bared myself, and as I did so, I felt the sluice of urgent blood move to harden my member. I looked I climbed onto the bed beside her. Kneeling there, slowly, an inch at a time, I brought it toward her face. She stared at it, her whole attention riveted upon it, and then suddenly, when it was no more than six inches from her, she let out a small whimper, enclosed it like a valuable object in both hands, and took it into her mouth. As she did, her liquid eyes closed, and I felt the warmth of complete envelopment. Her full lips pressed to my hard flesh, sliding up and down it, her tongue twisting madly around the swollen head. She held onto the base of my sex with her hands, squeezing hard. I was on the verge of annihilation.”
Disappointed by Anna, Folsrom develops an infatuation with his housekeeper Kirstin. Stumbling across her engrossed in sado-masochist acts with two other maids, he watches them through a keyhole:
“Each girl picked up a skeleton. The fantasy began. I was conscious at once of the fact that the bones had been wired together, and that, fixed firmly to each skeleton, was a rubber penis. Carefully, in a practiced way, each girl slipped it into her, draped the arms of a skeleton over her back and shoulders, and lay down on the filthy straw. To see a skeleton pricking a young girl, the bones bouncing like a beaded parrot-cage on her soft belly, is a strange sight. It did not last long. I had the impression that Kirstin was impatient for her little insects to become stuck in her web. She said something and the girls rose immediately, allowing the skeletons to tumble onto the floor. They began to fly again, or rather, to make the motions of flying. Mona was more graceful than Milly. Her movements were less abrupt and the flesh of her buttocks was a startling white against her red hair.”
And so after Folsrom has witnessed these ‘perversions’, Kirstin becomes his new sexual ideal:
“Here, at last, was the risk that I was looking for; the intensity, the obscenity, the criminality to which I could bring the willing consent of my own body and soul. The vision of Anna paled before the image of Kirstin. The one wished nothing more than to be a victim; the other would dare to victimize. What hellish green fires must have burned within Kirstin to turn her into the woman-beast I had seen in action!
I had to make a compact at once. I would wait an hour. Then the orgy surely would be over, and then I would ring for her. For the first time in my life, I had met a woman to whom I could dedicate myself utterly. The old craving to be the instrument of another’s will surged up in me anew. Kirstin. Kirstin. Faust is waiting for you.”
Folsrom briefly finds contentment with Kirstin, leading him to announce that:
“In only a few days time, Kirstin had made me the doting slave of her body and her will. Kirstin now slept with me every night, or rather, I slept with her, for it was she who had become pre-eminent and it was I who nightly slept with my head between the wet weight of her thighs. It was she who insisted upon this, and I loved and worshipped her for it, deriving more pleasure from my utter abasement than I had ever drawn from abasing another.”
However, boredom soon set in and at the conclusion of White Thighs, Folsrom discovers a new and better sexual ideal than Kirstin in a housemaid called Ursula:
“She lay with her hands to her sides, as if her palms were nailed to the floor, and looked ceilingward. Still, I thought I gleaned a shadow of a smile on her face. It was not a smile of simple pleasure, but one that seemed to hold the secreted knowledge of evil. I was, surely, going insane, for Ursula had no knowledge of evil, but was virgin soil, untainted, pure. Surely. I drove into her harder, in confusion perhaps, and she closed tightly around me, and I released my seed deep into her womb. There was, afterwards, again that smile, that evil smile!
“I kneeled up to remove myself from the hideous, yet lovely sight of her furtive meaning. She looked at me, my body kneeling before her.
” “Now pray,” she uttered, her voice hoarse, dull. “Pray and then lick me clean.”
“Obediently, I did as I was told. As my tongue came out to meet the mixture of our fluids, I realized the gravity of my actions, for then, intoxicated by her heavy, sweet fragrance, I was committing sacrilege, worshipping a new god. She clamped my head between her flawlessly white thighs, the tender flesh of them burning my cheeks, my ears, suffocating me and cutting off all sound. It was then, as I swirled in the thick eddy of her release, that I gleaned the future: I would have to prove my devotion to her; there would have to be a sacrifice.”
Moving from the specific to the more general, men only enjoy power in a male dominated society if they function as a cog of this society by transmitting their own submission onto those on the next level down. The problem that Trocchi is confronting – but Folsrom patently cannot – is the fact that rather than abandoning their power, revolutionary males must assert themselves over and above their function as cogs in an inhuman machine. White Thighs does not address the sexual struggle from the perspective of women, it merely demonstrates that pre-determined sexual roles lead to disappointment and the endless repetition of a limited number of unsatisfactory acts. That said, it is important not to see women as the victims of sexual norms, but rather as playing the role of victim. While women too have to reclaim their repressed sexuality, the fact that they start from a different position in present society means that their struggle has other dimensions, with Trocchi presumably viewing them as more suited to describing this.
What White Thighs ultimately provides us with is a critique of consumer society in the form of a parody of a pornographic novel. In our alienated world we can never be satisfied – physically, emotionally, intellectually – since capitalism is predicated on us forever attempting to assuage an unending number of cynically manufactured dissatisfactions through the acquisition of new goods and chattels (which upon examination turn out to be little different from the old ones we already had). What Trocchi attempts to do in White Thighs is show us that we need to free up our sexuality from the limits imposed on us by capitalism and the state, and he does this by depicting the dehabilitating effects these limits have on Folsrom. Trocchi’s problem with Folsrom is not that he is “perverse”, but rather that his perversion is limited and channelled, when if it were healthy it would overflow capitalist canalisation in a rising flood and tide of polymorphous perversity. The controlled release of sexual frustration has long been used for the purpose of repression and Trocchi’s depiction of this in White Thighs is spot on. This book remains an exemplary revolutionary text in as far as it continues to disappoint those who pick it up hoping to gain sexual satisfaction from it… As I said at the start of this piece, Trocchi never lets you down because all along his intention was to disappoint!
August 9, 2008
“The label of nihilistic writer so often attached to him is profoundly, not just superficially, accurate: he’s nihilistic not so much in the lay sense of having a gloomy outlook on life, but rather inasmuch as his entire sensibility rests on an intimate relation with a space of annihilation, of becoming nothing”
I remember reading Cain’s Book in my early twenties and being struck by an almost visceral awareness — the same kind of sensation you get when reading Joyce or Burroughs for the first time — that this was momentous, important stuff. The prose seemed to affirm at every turn the presence of someone who, besides knowing how to write, fundamentally understood and articulated what literature is: what it offers, what it withholds, what’s at stake in it. When I was invited to come and talk tonight, I dug out my old Calder copy, and found I hadn’t been wrong.
One of the most striking characteristics of Cain’s Book is its refusal of story. Narrative in the conventional sense is almost non-existent, and wilfully so. In one of the novel’s many self-reflective moments, Trocchi compares his text’s progression to a landscape which is not only un-signposted but also, in its very innate formation, devoid of the ‘natural’ narrative contours which we might expect a book to follow: peaks and troughs, steady plot inclines rising to dramatic summits or climactic cliffs from which whole vistas open up, that kind of thing. Rather, it forms an ‘endless tundra which is all there is to be explored.’ Tundras are bleak, monotonous, quasi-repetitive, the same and not the same at the same time. He adds: ‘This is the impasse which a serious man must enter and from which only the simple-minded can retreat.’ Must enter: I’ll come back to this sense of obligation later.
But for now I want to stick with the landscape analogy, because it seems to me that Trocchi’s sensibility is totally spatial. Like Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus or Herman Melville in Moby Dick, he’s mapping a whole cosmogony, intuiting his way towards an understanding of a social, poetic and metaphysical layout. That’s the real action of Cain’s Book, its ‘plot’. To gain the vantage point necessary for this undertaking, he has to go out to the edge of things. Emily Dickinson often talks about finding her place on the ‘circumference’ — of the globe, of space itself, of life — a limit-point from which she can look two ways, in and out. Trocchi is drawn to this circumference, attracted by the view it offers. He finds it, in its most literal form, in a scow (or barge) moored off the edge of Manhattan, a spot from which he can peer back and see the city’s celebrated skyline dim and hazy in the distance, ‘like a mirage in which one isn’t involved.’ On the scow’s other side, the black water of the Hudson across which he’s towed at irregular intervals by tugs, and the even blacker water of the Atlantic in which he’s occasionally deposited for long stretches, ‘tottering at the night edge of a flat world’ (space, for him, is always flat). The question then becomes: Where’s that edge’s edge, the point beyond which you fall off? ‘I often wondered,’ he writes, ‘how far out a man could go without being obliterated.’
Trocchi is acutely aware that his sought-after observation post lies somewhere pretty close to the trip-line of death — just past it even, by a couple of paces. This agonisingly nerve-wracking set-up is, quite paradoxically, what keeps him steady, gives him purpose: ‘to be able to attain, by whatever means, the serenity of a vantage point ‘beyond’ death, to have such a critical technique at one’s disposal — let me say that on my ability to attain that vantage point my own sanity has from time to time depended.’ The label of nihilistic writer so often attached to him is profoundly, not just superficially, accurate: he’s nihilistic not so much in the lay sense of having a gloomy outlook on life, but rather inasmuch as his entire sensibility rests on an intimate relation with a space of annihilation, of becoming nothing.
What’s more (and here it gets really interesting), this space is also where writing itself — the act, the practise and the stuff, the matter — comes from. When he describes the billowing Atlantic as ‘like a sheet of black ink’, it’s not just to be gratuitously poetic: the dark, void-filled liquid, for him, really is like what’s inside his typewriter. Tied to Bronx Stakeboat Number 2 in what seems an interminable night, he spends his time re-reading notes whose logic is entirely circular: ‘If I write: it is important to keep writing, it is to keep me writing.’ The other author who immediately springs to mind here is Maurice Blanchot, that writer of infinite night, darkness and disappearance, and in fact some of Trocchi’s lines could have been written by Blanchot, not least the one in which he tells us that ‘the great urgency for literature is that it should once and for all accomplish its own dying.’ But where Blanchot’s ponderings on literature and the right to death are abstract, Trocchi has willed them into material form off New York harbour, given them concrete embodiment, a mise en scene: ensconced in what he describes as the ‘floating coffin’ of his scow, with ‘the emptiness of the night beyond the walls… the trackless water,’ he lays out before us, in one of the most brilliantly pared-down passages of the whole book, ‘a chair, a typewriter, a table, a single bed, a coal stove, a dresser, a cupboard, a man in a little wooden shack, two miles from the nearest land.’ Like a tracker dog, he’s hunted down literature’s ground zero, its primal scene, and set his store up there: Here it is, Here I am.
When he’s not immersed in the black liquid, he’s injecting it into himself in the form of heroin. Heroin is an essential weapon in Trocchi’s nihilistic armoury: ‘There is no more systematic nihilism,’ he writes, ‘than that of the junky in America’. If Paris was a moveable feast for Hemingway, junk, for Trocchi, is a moveable void: taking that void around the city with him, in him, he ensures that he inhabits negative space constantly. This is his poetic project and it’s also the way his whole perception system works at its most basic level (the two are the same). I can’t stress enough how utterly negative Trocchi’s negative space is. It’s negative in the strict chemical or photographic sense of the word. An early sequence in Cain’s Book takes us through a kind of Proust-moment of perception and recall in which Trocchi, watching a man urinating in an alley, becomes
‘like a piece of sensitive photographic paper, waiting passively to feel the shock of impression. And then I was quivering like a leaf, more precisely like a mute hunk of appetitional plasm, a kind of sponge in which the business of being excited was going on, run through by a series of external stimuli: the lane, the man, the pale light, the lash of silver — at the ecstatic edge of something to be seen.’
Edge again. The sequence kicks off a long analepsis to an Edinburgh pub, then the image of a blade cutting the outline of a woman’s body into wood — a loop whose eventual folding back into the present dictates that Trocchi take the man back to his scow and sleep with him. But their sex doesn’t respond to a need which is, properly speaking, sexual: rather, it fulfils the requirements of the perception-memory tip he’s launched himself on. Just prior to the seduction, Trocchi tells us:
‘I experienced a sly female lust to be impregnated by, beyond words and in a mystical way to confound myself with, not the man necessarily, though that was part of the possibility, but the secrecy of his gesture.’
This is Phenomenology in action: what drives him is a longing for the world to unpack itself before us, to take form and resolution, like an image looming into view from murky liquid in a dark room.
Finally, that notion of obligation I was talking about earlier. Cain’s Book is shot through with a sense of mission. Trocchi has a task, an almost military duty to attend to. Several times he talks about being confronted by the ‘enemy’, against whose charges fixing gives him an instant ‘Castle Keep’, an enclave from which he can hold out: against his age, morality, stupidity, capitalism’s work ethic, the lot (as Burroughs would say, ‘the whole tamale’). Writing finds another role in this battle. As he divvies up his scores with them, Trocchi, intriguingly, lectures his fellow junkies on the contemporary importance of the diarist and exhorts them ‘to accept, to endure, to record’ (although whether they’re roused into Pepys-like diligence by his exhortations is doubtful). In the select moments when he references other writers directly, he invokes Beckett’s aesthetic of endurance and bearing witness and Joyce’s strategy of cunning, exile and silence. As with Joyce’s writing, there’s a real sense that Trocchi’s lays out a project which is at once political, personal and aesthetic. You can’t separate these strata in his work. His goal has always been ‘to strike permanently against uncreative work… to explore and modify my great contempt.’ Although lots of commentators try to ‘reclaim’ Trocchi from literature, set him aside from its canon, for me statements like this place him firmly within a tradition running from Celine to Houellebecq: like them, Trocchi is writing against his time, against all time, against history. ‘I felt my thoughts were the ravings of a man mad out of his mind to have been placed in history at all’ he rages, full to bursting with his mission, ‘having to act, having to consider, a victim of the fixed insquint.’
What he’s aiming for, his ultimate goal, in one sense, is the archetypal tragic moment and the transcendence that this moment offers. ‘The problem,’ he decides near Cain’s Book‘s end, ‘has always been to fuse the fragments of eternity, more precisely, to attain from time to time the absolute serenity of timelessness.’ Yet at the same time he rejects the very aesthetic mode (tragedy) that would allow this absolute serenity and timelessness to happen — as he has already told his fellow junkies, it’s ‘the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary.’ Basically, he’s a Modernist: classically, essentially. And what we’re ultimately encountering in Cain’s Book is the Modernist quandary that turns around failure of tragedy — the same quandary articulated by the work of Eliot, Conrad or Faulkner. I want the transcendental tragic moment, but I can’t believe in tragedy anymore, therefore my writing will both self-frustrate and form the record of that experience of self-frustration. This paradox is what gives Cain’s Book its final, brilliant ending, in which Trocchi first recognises the inadequacy of art and literature in actually ‘accomplishing’ anything, muttering dismissively ‘such concepts I sometimes read about, but they have nothing in intimacy with what I am doing, exposing, obscuring’ — then immediately, compelled as always, carries on producing work, showing us, again, the scene of writing: the typewriter, the half-written page. ‘Only at the end,’ he writes, ‘I am still sitting here, writing, with the feeling I have not even begun to say what I mean, apparently sane still…’ And he lets us know that as soon as he’s finished the paragraph he’s going to go into the next room and take drugs. Eventually, as we know, the writing itself would slip away, until only the void was left. This was probably distressing to those who knew and loved him; but, given the trajectory he’s cast himself along, it seems ‘correct’, the ending that his work, in its extraordinary honesty, demands.
Finally finally: I think Trocchi is important, more so now than ever. We’re living in a time when the very ‘uncreative work’ against which he permanently struck is dominating culture, especially in the field of publishing. All too often, pliant authors are content to serve as little more than copywriters advertising neoliberal concerns, churning out middle-market copy for conglomerates, and all too often broadsheets who rely on these conglomerates for revenue try to persuade us that this copy is literature. Well it’s not; and Cain’s Book is. It’s a book in which the very possibility of literature booms and resonates, or (to use another metaphor) rushes and gurgles like so much black water under a hull two miles from land: literature’s possibility and, of course, its impossibility.