Young Adam

May 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

There are times when a piece of art comes along and nothing is ever the same again. Such arrivals fulfil three functions; they come to represent their time, they change what will follow, and, often brutally, they kill what had preceded them. Or at least appear to at the time. Think of the impact Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ made, rendering what had come before old hat and dated, and how they changed what the definitions of what literature and art were or could be. Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Young Adam’ could be seen as the ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ of Scottish literature in that it changed Scottish fiction forever. It was just that few people realised it at the time.

Trocchi was not just unappreciated in his own land, he was roundly despised. This needs some context. He was writing about human morality, or the lack of it, and existential angst when most Scottish writers were still obsessed with notions of belonging, nationality and identity. This was a time when Hugh MacDiarmid was king of all he surveyed, and you were either for him or agin him. No-one was more agin him than Trocchi. In 1962 at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference the two clashed spectacularly. Trocchi thought MacDiarmid parochial in his outlook, while MacDiarmid called Trocchi ‘corrupt and depraved’ and, in a manner that Trocchi must have loved, labelled him ‘cosmopolitan scum’. To be honest, Trocchi didn’t help himself by claiming he was only interested in ‘lesbianism and sodomy’. This relatively childish clash was widely hyped as ‘Nationalism’ versus ‘Internationalism’. Of course this is far too simplistic a view, but never the less, I know whose side I’m on.

Published in 1957, ‘Young Adam’ chimed with the times, only those times were being had over the Atlantic.  Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1956), Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (1957) and Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959) were texts which changed American literature and those writers are his true artistic contemporaries. Trocchi soon left Scotland for the US, after a brief time in Paris where he picked up a healthy heroin habit, and he soon became a favourite writer of William Burroughs in particular. The ‘Beats’ were as much about lifestyle as literary worth, and Trocchi fitted right in with his prolific drug use and his love of the sensational.

The novel begins with the body of a young woman being pulled from the Clyde and which is observed by the novel’s narrator Joe. What unfolds is Joe’s dispassionate commentary as he acts in manner which society would deem immoral. It is not so much his actions which are shocking, although they are, it is the ‘otherness’ of his commentary on them. It is often as if he is another person viewing this life. There is a cold detachment that makes the reader question if morality is personal or simply a case of acting as society expects. As John Pringle says in his introduction to the 1996 publication, ‘it’s not the story, but the way he (Joe) tells it’.

Joe is not in any sense an appealing character, and nor is he meant to be. You would be mistaken to think that Trocchi intends him as a hero. Joe is a self confessed ‘outsider’ who uses this status to excuse his actions and decisions. But he is confused, not sure what life should entail, and how he should react to his own. It is not that he is such an outsider, this is a romantic label he gives himself, but rather that he becomes an observer, one who is unable to act responsibly even when he feels he should. You could say that it is cowardice, or self preservation, intellectually justified.

Trocchi’s influence wasn’t really felt, at least in Scotland, until the Rebel Inc generation of writers named him as an important influence on their work. They republished ‘Young Adam’ in 1996 and Irvine Welsh went so far as to call him ‘the Scottish George Best of the literary world’. If you read ‘Young Adam’, and Trocchi’s other great novel ‘Cain’s Story’, and consider his addiction to drink and drugs, it is all too easy to see why he appealed to ‘The Chemical Generation’. If you also consider his side career as a writer of pornography, under the terrific pseudonym of Carmenicita De Las Lunas, you could say that Trocchi’s writing and life served as a template for many of those who followed forty years later.

There is an argument, and indeed I’m going to make it, that ‘Young Adam’ was the Scottish novel which marks the end of one Scottish literary renaissance and the beginning of another. It has just taken people a long time to realise it. It still divides critics, many of whom agree with MacDiarmid that Trocchi was a depraved sensationalist, as if that’s necessarily a bad thing. But most people who actually read ‘Young Adam’ realise that there is so much more to it than sex and violence. It questions just how much responsibility an individual has to ‘others’. It is also a novel which doesn’t feel the need to justify its ‘Scottishness’, something that has finally come to pass in the best contemporary Scottish fiction. ‘Young Adam’ is an existential text to place alongside Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ or Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. Trocchi should be viewed as one of Scotland’s truly international writers in that he had a European existential outlook, and a Beat Generation sensibility and style. He has come to be a writer who has had as much of an influence on modern Scottish literature than arguably any other, but, when he was first published, well he just wasn’t made for those times.

Alistair

Next Month’s Novel: Alan Spence is in many ways another outsider in terms of Scottish writing, and this is peculiar. His fiction is clever, funny and has a gentle quality that threatens to make him the most radical of Scottish writers.  His fiction and poetry celebrate life; not just his own, but all life.

The writer he most reminds me of is John Irving in that there is a fantastic, almost magical/realist, quality to his writing which allows him to examine important subjects, such as death and religion, with an attitude that is always positive. Perhaps it is this positivity, his spirituality, which sets him apart. Scottish culture still has problems embracing such concepts.

  1. Alan Spence Way To Go (Sept)
  2. A.L. Kennedy Paradise (Oct)
  3. Alice Thompson The Existential Detective (Nov)
  4. Agnes Owens Bad Attitudes (Dec)
  5. Rodge Glass No Fireworks (Jan)
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