Oneworld Classics, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite publishing programs, recently republished (2008) a novel by the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi. The novel, Young Adam, was originally published in 1954 and features a highly-unreliable narrator named Joe.
Young Adam is divided into three parts and it isn’t until you turn the page to Part 2 that you realize that Joe has just spent eighty pages distracting you from the real story. The novel actually opens with Joe and his employer Leslie finding a dead woman floating in the river next to their barge. They fish her out, call the police, mull over the event a bit and then the novel changes direction completely, detailing Joe’s obsessed attempt to have an affair with Leslie’s wife.
But when Part 2 opens, you realize that Joe and the dead woman are much more intricately connected than he ever let on. And that the novel is actually about this relationship and Joe’s role in her death. You also realize that Joe’s interest in Leslie’s wife Ella dates from almost the exact moment the other woman’s body was removed from the river and that previous to that moment, he hadn’t much considered her worth his time.
Although quite a short novel, Young Adam packs a bizarrely powerful punch. On the one hand, the writing is often awkward. Joe’s narrative style is as inconsistent as his fact-telling. He moves from a gentle, poetic lyricism to using stilted, clumsy sentences – often in the same paragraph. The introduction tells me that Trocchi did this on purpose, and links it to his proto-postmodern style. I must admit that it created a bumpy reading experience, although I eventually accepted this as part of Joe’s camouflage, a way to deceive or at least confuse the reader. On the other hand, Joe’s attempts to disentangle himself from the responsibility of the woman’s death are psychologically rich and complex and gave a lot of meat to this very slim story.
Joe’s relationship with the different women in the novel is where Trocchi seems to provide most of the analysis for Joe’s character. Joe is profoundly misogynistic. Although this may be oversimplifying things, since he also seems to be just as misanthropic. I couldn’t find an example of Joe enjoying the company of any other single person in the novel. But he uses the women in particular, which makes it easier to examine this aspect of his personality.
Trocchi is considered a member of the Beat generation and Young Adam reflects that tradition, although I found it much darker than other samples of Beat literature I’ve come across. I wonder if this is a cultural difference, since I often find that Europeans allow for a more cynical and somber worldview than Americans. In his literature, Trocchi seems to be experimenting with both form and content, but there is no joy, no heady giddiness in that experimentation.
In fact, it could be argued that his portrayal of sexual freedom results in a heartless, unfeeling situation where both partners are locked inside their own experience, without access to the other. If Trocchi was interested in exploring the Beat themes of rootlessness, non-conformity and free expression, his assessment of the power granted in that freedom seems overwhelmingly pessimistic.
In total, Trocchi has ten novels, although it seems most of these are dismissed as experimental erotic fiction with little literary merit. His other “serious” novel, Cain’s Book, is a chronicle of heroin addiction and caused quite a sensation when it was first published in 1961. Apparently, critics are still undecided as to whether Young Adam or Cain’s Book should be considered his finest work. I’ll be interested to see what I think when I can get my hands on a copy.