The plotless beauty of his writing, and its fearless look at the emptiness of his own life, put ‘the Scottish Beat’ on a par with Kafka and Camus.
My scow is tied up in Flushing, NY, alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.
Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.
So begins Cain’s Book, Alexander Trocchi‘s incredible novel of existential dread. Young Adam, its predecessor, is better known, but the latter is the “Scottish Beat’s” classic.
Asked to name the best existential literature, most of us would probably say Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Franz Kafka. But Cain’s Book actually takes the reader one step further into the philosophical world of existential angst than any of them. It positively drowns us in a word of unremitting absurdity and meaninglessness.
A roman à clef, Cain’s Book details the life of one Joe Nechhi, a Glaswegian heroin addict living and working on a scow in New York’s Hudson harbor. It is a book almost entirely devoid of plot: Nechhi occasionally details trips into the city to score heroin, recollects his childhood in Glasgow, or talks of his attempts to write a book. What is incredible about the book is its unrelenting bleakness, and the sheer poetic quality of Trocchi’s writing.
Heroin for Trocchi, as Remainder author Tom McCarthy noted in a lecture on Cain’s Book recently, “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).”
In real life, Trocchi seemed very glad to cut himself off from his peers, saying that his only concerns as a writer were “sodomy and lesbianism”, that those were the only interesting subjects in the previous 20 years of Scottish writing and that “I have written it all.”
Sadly, Cain’s Book was his last. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, Trocchi’s addiction to heroin took its toll and his talent lay pretty much squandered. The stories of his wild and tragic life are infamous and extensively documented in many of the leading “swinging 60s” biographies (Marianne Faithfull’s account of doing drugs with Trocchi is one of the best). Despite his addictions, and his sad death at the age of 59, Trocchi left us some of the bleakest, most beautiful writing to come out of the 60s.
In Cain’s Book the writing is all – the words ebb and flow like the inky blackness of the Hudson River. Trocchi’s descriptive powers are mesmerising: one barely even notices the lack of narrative drive until after the book has been put down.
His other books includes some interesting pseudonymous pornography for the Olympia Press. (Titles like Helen and Desire, Sappho of Lesbos and White Thighs deliver their smut with a Sadean political edge.) Young Adam, of course, was turned into a successful film starring Ewan McGregor, and helped to raise the author’s public perception a little. But it’s Cain’s book that best fulfils Trocchi’s hopes for “the invisible insurrection of a thousand minds”.