MORE

Underground Man

Illustration by Tra Selthrow

When David MacKenzie set out to film Alexander Trocchi’s 1954 novel Young Adam, he wasn’t interested in homage so much as a project that might evoke the poetic bleakness of Scotland’s seagoing canals. This makes for an unintended irony, since the Glasgow-born Trocchi, who died in 1984 of complications from pneumonia, spent much of his life in active conflict with Scottish culture, which he considered parochial and narrow-minded. It was just that, in fact, which led Trocchi to leave Scotland in 1950, and later to declare that the writer’s obligation was to explore the relationship of the individual to society through the filter of a personal rebellion, to stand inviolable and apart. Certainly, such ideas mark Young Adam, which, starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, offers a claustrophobic portrait of postwar canal life, with its joyless work ethic, its oppressive air of conventional morality. For the most part, however, Trocchi’s presence in the film is more or less an afterthought, as if he were a ghost in the machine.

This is only as it should be, for, two decades after his death, Trocchi remains something of a cipher, a lost figure, a writer remembered, if at all, for his dissipation rather than his work. Of his dozen books, just two are in print in the United States. Partly, this has to do with his willful self-abnegation. A longtime junkie (and a nihilist intent, in a very real sense, on nullifying his own life), he essentially stopped writing after his 1960 novel Cain’s Book, which celebrated heroin addiction as a philosophical choice. There is a movie tie-in edition of Young Adam, but when I call the publisher, Grove Press, no one there knows anything about it, and MacKenzie, too, is unaware of its existence until I bring it up. “Trocchi,” he says by way of explanation, “set himself up to be a marginal figure, so it’s no surprise he is one.”

At the same time, Trocchi was, by all accounts, possessed of an enormous ego, which makes his disappearance less a matter of oblivion than a conscious gesture of superiority. “Trocchi believed he was so powerful, both in his mind and in his body,” recalled his British publisher John Calder in a 1995 interview, “that he could resist anything, and of course he got hooked [on heroin] very quickly and was never able to get off it for the rest of his life.” Or, as Trocchi puts it in the closing lines of Cain’s Book: “Ending, I should not care to estimate what has been accomplished. In terms of art and literature? — such concepts I sometimes read about, but they have nothing in intimacy with what I am doing, exposing, obscuring. Only at the end I am still sitting here, writing, with the feeling I have not even begun to say what I mean, apparently sane still, and with a sense of my freedom and responsibility, more or less cut off as I was before.”

If that reads like an epitaph, it’s also the logical endpoint of a subversive life. In Paris, in the early 1950s, Trocchi played a central role in the expatriate bohemia of the Left Bank, along with George Plimpton, Terry Southern and Peter Matthiessen. He was the first editor to publish Samuel Beckett in English, in his short-lived but influential journal Merlin. He also wrote six novels in three years, mostly “dbs,” or “dirty books,” cranked out for Olympia Press. Olympia’s owner, Maurice Girodias, was the son of Jack Kahane, whose Obelisk Press had published Henry Miller in the 1930s, and Girodias, too, had literary aspirations: At a time when many books were being challenged for obscenity in Britain and the U.S., he put out novels like Lolita, Naked Lunch, Candy and The Ginger Man in English for the first time.

Trocchi, who went to Paris to emulate Miller, clearly responded to Girodias’ willingness to push the boundaries, and his Olympia novels reveal his double-edged cast of mind. Thongs, which, like most of his Paris work, was published under the pseudonym Frances Lengel, tells the story of Gertrude Gault, a Glasgow woman who becomes Grand Painmistress of a secret order of sexual sadists. By modeling the cult’s structure on the Catholic Church, Trocchi frames a trenchant critique of conventional culture, which hides its moral lapses behind a sanctimonious public face. In 1954, Trocchi also helped Girodias pull off a legendary hoax by writing a fifth volume of Frank Harris’ My Life and Loves.

Young Adam was the third of Trocchi’s Paris novels, and although he did dirty it up for Olympia, it wasn’t a “db.” (According to Jane Lougee, Trocchi’s lover at the time, “It was disappointing for Alex to have Girodias do the book.”) Unlike, say, Thongs, the sex here seems false, gratuitous, and was removed from subsequent editions. That’s not to say Young Adam doesn’t have erotic undertones; like most of Trocchi’s work, it’s rife with desire and longing, a sense that, in the physical, we might free ourselves, however temporarily, from the strictures of society. More than anything, though, it’s a philosophical novel, a tautly written existential thriller narrated by a barge worker named Joe Taylor who lets an innocent man hang for the murder of a young woman, a death that Joe himself has caused. Whether or not the killing is intentional remains an open question: “[W]as it an accident?” Joe wonders. “I suppose it was. It had never occurred to me to kill her. I was merely walking away.”

 

Such a narrative setup has more than a little in common with Albert Camus’ The Stranger, on which Young Adam was obviously modeled, but Trocchi takes Camus a long step further by offering a protagonist for whom guilt and innocence are merely “convenient social fiction[s]” that he refuses to embrace. “Go to the police?” Joe asks himself late in the novel. “Confess? In practice I knew it would prove fatal to me. In principle it would have been in an indirect but very fundamental way to affirm the validity of the particular social structure I wished to deny.” In that regard, Trocchi’s intentions are directly related to the inviolability he would later espouse in Cain’s Book — the idea that, in a corrupt society, engagement itself is a form of capitulation, which leaves no other option than to stand apart.

This, of course, is a difficult concept — both for Trocchi’s readers and for the author, who, one might argue, willed himself into silence by taking such an unrelenting stance. It’s not just an amoral perspective, but one that’s almost actively anti-moral, an attack on the very notion of ethics, which Trocchi sees as capricious and impure. For that reason, perhaps, the film of Young Adam softens his position, even as it remains faithful to the movement of the book. MacKenzie’s (and McGregor’s) Joe is less a philosophical rebel than a basic 1950s antihero, dark and brooding, prone to silence, with little of Trocchi’s ambiguity. Because we see the girl’s death, there’s no doubt that it is an accident, which makes Joe innocent in a way his literary counterpart can never be.

By the same token, the movie invests Joe with a sense of responsibility, the insistent pull of conscience, a quality the novel assiduously avoids. “I was trying to create a character that you’re both compelled and repelled by,” MacKenzie explains, “someone who is as far from innocent as you can get but still not guilty.” That’s a convincing variation on what Trocchi had in mind, yet it feels antithetical for Joe to follow the trial, not, as happens in the novel, “to see how the lawyers and other court functionaries committed legal murder,” but rather as a reaction to his own guilt, a cry for expiation in some way. At one point, there was talk of making the redemption explicit; an early version of the script featured an ending in which Joe walks into a police station, whether to turn himself in or not we would never know. “Ewan, Tilda and myself,” MacKenzie says, “staged a mini-mutiny. It would have been a major cop-out, and changed the entire meaning of the film.”

MacKenzie’s right, although even without this ending, the film can’t help but back away from the novel’s point of view. It’s a common reaction to Trocchi and his writing, and it’s why he’s unlikely to be rediscovered to any lasting degree. For Trocchi, after all, there is no guilt or innocence, no traditional morality of any stripe. His whole career, including his final quarter-century of silence, represents an assault on such distinctions, a vision of humanity so stark it’s nearly impossible to hold its gaze.

YOUNG ADAM: A Novel | By ALEXANDER TROCCHI | Grove Press | 146 pages | $12 paperback