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.