A Moveable Void: Tom McCarthy on Alex Trocchi’s Cain’s Book
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.