Alex Trocchi & the revolt against authenticity

Hey kids just in case the notorious lobster loving nude chefs of the International Necronautical Society fooled you into thinking I was the first person to attack the cult of authenticity (and I’m sure they only took this humorous stand to demonstrate that they are absolute masters of the inauthentic), let’s backtrack a bit. Since we’ve been talking about the inauthentic lately in relation to Tom McCarthy and Simon Critichley taking up the trope from various 1980s and 1990s countercultural networks, it seems worth putting my introduction to Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam online. This is a book from the 1950s that brilliantly satirises the authenticity obsessed existential movement of that time. My analysis of the text comes after a little bit of set up, so stick with this one boppers! Oh and for those bibliophiles with us here today (yes, I do count the likes of Paul Noble among my many acquaintances), this first appeared at the front of the One World Classics edition of Young Adam published in June 2008.
Young Adam Introduction
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.
For more on Trocchi (the novel White Thighs and his 1969 Arts Lab State of Revolt event) go to:
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by William Burroughs on 2009-01-21 11:00:34 +0000

Without Trocchi there would be no lobster loving nude chefs of the INS!

Comment by Kathy Acker on 2009-01-21 14:26:41 +0000

When I saw the INS nude chefs take their clothes off I knew they weren’t real men, and this proves they are radically inauthentic! That Simon Critchley is so metrosexual, and better yet, Tom McCarthy is a Patrick McGoohan clone, and you can’t have too many Patrick McGoohan clones!

Comment by Bender & Schmaltz on 2009-01-21 14:58:35 +0000

Forget about John Lennon, it’s Paul McCartney we love!

Comment by Creepy on 2009-01-21 15:21:37 +0000

Stuff Paul McCartney, the INS seem to believe death is not true! How’s a necrophile gonna get their kicks if they start listening to such rot?

Comment by Linda Lusardi on 2009-01-21 16:23:25 +0000

hey its a false choice between undialectical situationists and trialectical muzak mans its all about INXS autoerotic asphyxiation

Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-01-21 16:31:20 +0000

The one thing I can’t understand is the protest songs like ‘Eve of Destruction’…that was absolute rubbish. Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ or ‘God On Our Side’ are OK because they say things in an original manner but P.F Sloan is too much.

Comment by Jason Skeet Appreciation Society on 2009-01-21 19:29:50 +0000

The International Necronautical Society is a poor copy of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts. Why take a good collective project and add an unwanted literary gloss to it, fail to acknowledge your source – and the AAA is the most important one for the INS – and act like it is the individual creation of the satrap who styles himself General Secretary but who you might just as well be called Generalismo or dictator? That Alex Trocchi’s idea of the Cosmonaut of Inner Space and much else fed into the AAA is no big deal for us or the AAA to acknowledge. The INS is boring rubbish and hasn’t observed protocol when plagiarising and distorting this material. That the INS impresses ignorant curators makes sense to us and these idiots deserve each other. The INS don’t understand that the futurists and dadists set out to destroy literature.

Comment by William Burroughs on 2009-01-21 20:42:26 +0000

I think the Jason Skeet fans are being a little too harsh. After all if what they say is true then the INS is radically inauthentic. And I don’t think they understood what I was saying when I mentioned that without Trocchi there would be no lobster loving nude chefs of the INS… that isn’t a metaphor, Stewart Home’s mother was a close friend of Trocchi and I’m telling you he is literally Trocchi’s son. So don’t believe the hype about JFK! And my view is they’re overplaying the influence of the AAA on the INS at the expense of Homie…

Comment by Dire McCain on 2009-01-21 20:46:40 +0000

Fuck the features, Klaus! The fucking “brand new” car had faulty struts, damn it! Next time, put down the crack pipe before hitting the assembly line!

Comment by The Ghost of Alex Trocchi on 2009-01-21 21:02:29 +0000

But what about Young Adam?????

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-21 23:41:07 +0000

Sorry Alex I’ve said my stuff in the main part of the blog, so you’ll just have to wait for someone else to come onto the comments with something fresh about it……

Comment by Jilly Johnson on 2009-01-22 00:47:45 +0000

Trocchi’s writing is hot and always get me going!

Comment by Dire McCain on 2009-01-22 01:07:04 +0000

It turns out that Klaus was in fact hitting the chode pipe, NOT the crack pipe…
Tweakers of the world unite!

Comment by William Burroughs on 2009-01-22 01:18:41 +0000

Most disgusting thing I ever stood still for…..

Comment by Klaus on 2009-01-22 02:34:45 +0000

Hello! My name is Klaus, Volkswagen engineer. Engineering is my life. I helped engineer your 2009 New Beetle, and I want you to experience Volkswagen engineering to the fullest. So here are three well-engineered features that can come in very handy when the elements intervene while driving.

Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-01-22 03:02:09 +0000

It is all bloody stupid. I picked up that OPD badge in Canada. It was a police badge. Perhaps it means Ontario Police Department or something. I was wearing a black flower because they ran out of red ones. It is John, not me, dressed in black on the cover and inside of Magical Mystery Tour. On Abbey Road we were wearing our ordinary clothes. I was walking barefoot because it was a hot day. The Volkswagon just happened to be parked there.

Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-01-22 03:15:33 +0000

Ooooh looky, my klone is at it again! Wheeeeeeeee! And now that Klaus’ true identity has been revealed, the faulty struts and cracked steering knuckle make perfect sense…

Comment by Melinda Messenger on 2009-01-22 06:50:54 +0000

Stewart you are just not enough of a mysogynistic wanker to get to the same level of literary acceptability as Borroughs and Trocchi – some of the shit they come out with is just way out of order and would get them their nuts chopped off by my commandos had they not begun every book with the words “I am a turd, a lowly abject turd” and then went on to list all the ways that they are… as for the INS who gives a fuck man, they can’t go beyond this life, cos they just don’t make good pinups like me or the AAA who being faceless have an endless number of polymorphing bodies on which to project endless polyperverted phantamagorgasmax beyond space time and meaning… ok back to the production line

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-22 12:29:03 +0000

Hey Mel…. I agree with you on the literature front, that just ain’t interesting… but some of what Trocchi did is still of interest… like The Invisible Insurrection…. and then there is my mom’s involvements with him….. as for the other stuff – fuck it!

Comment by Alex Trocchi on 2009-01-23 00:52:35 +0000

Look…my fuckin’ work, right, was in its entirety, smack money…it made me puke (the work not the smack) and I’m dead now. LEAVE ME ALONE!

Comment by Sigmund Freud on 2009-01-23 01:04:19 +0000

Heroin is the opiate of the (non) working classes

Comment by Melinda Messenger on 2009-01-23 06:21:53 +0000

Comrade Trocccchi, I heartily agree on your proposal for the International Cultural Conspiracy Ltd. because as you know, as workers we are all and already collaborating and constantly becoming the Human Species Being. Here Oh in, there oh in – you know I used to buy smack from a police station in the North West Frontier Province where the cops would rape little boys like you for kicks. My friend Gubi Sandhu was with me one time and brandishing his British passport urged an irrate pig to shoot him when we got into an argument with the inspector there. He ended up dead a year later cos he used to go to the local sufi graves and get caned every Thursday, but his taste in men got him into trouble all over again – this time the boy he raped didn’t know he was a cop. Well, it was either that or the local Taliban allied chief thought his Deobandism was heretical. Another story has it that the local saints buried at the graveyard took exception to his using of their graves to peddle smack and intervened into the world of the living as they are wont 2 do… whatever the truth is, it just goes to show theres no rest for the wicked baby

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-23 12:27:44 +0000

I don’t go for religion myself….. Sufi or any other kind, but all that dervish dancing is a groove sensation! And of course smack is very good for nerves….

Comment by devotionalhooligan on 2009-02-06 14:12:21 +0000

nice piece mate.trocchi is the bomb round these parts.xx

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