Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cain's Book

Like rock stars, some novels are eaten alive by their fans. Embraced by a severely circumscribed subculture, they turn from works of art into manifestoes, or worse, Bibles, and cease to be read by ordinary folk. Scottish-born Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (Grove Press, 1960), his one intentionally literary performance (unlike Helen and Desire, an earlier book written for and published by Olympia, the erotic press), is a good example. Written by a heroin user who made no bones of his addiction—indeed, he embraced it almost as part of his “craft and sullen art”—no sooner did Cain’s Book hit Brentano’s shelves than it was hailed by addicts less as a masterwork of prose than as a vindication. Like Burrough’s earlier Junkie, the book was seen as a poetic license to shoot up.

In the form of a somewhat arbitrary journal, the book (for its own sake, for now, I’ll back off calling it a novel) chronicles an unspecified period in the life of Joe Necchi, junkie, who captains a scow for the Mac Asphalt Company in New York Harbor: the perfect junkie job, since it requires almost no effort. The book opens with a description of its narrator watching the sky above Flushing Bay turn pink. “The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted,” Trocchi writes, capping an almost homey first paragraph. Then, on a line all it’s own:

“Half an hour ago, I gave myself a fix.”

Thus the book’s two poles are fixed: the soft-lit, contemplative, introspective world of the brooding poet at one extreme, and the sharp, angular, staccato world of junkiedom at the other. On Trocchi’s behalf one hesitates to label these poles “positive” and “negative,” since he would surely argue against such polarization: that the junkie’s world is one and the same as that of the poet, that both extremes arise out of the same instructional oblivion, that special brand of “here-and-now” ness attainable only under the influence of certain soluble narcotics, with a little hash or weed thrown in now and then. The book goes on to describe, in elaborate and even loving detail, the act of shooting-up, after which the narrator lies contemplating the movements of a fly on the wall as it “worries” the dry corpse of another fly.

All of which may seem tedious, but isn’t, thanks in large measure to the fine quality of Trocchi’s prose, which rarely slips beneath the level of poetry. Soon thereafter the narrative drifts into a meditation on the state of the mind under the drug, and from there into its virtues, chief among these being that it empties the mind of such nagging questions as What the hell am I doing here?, “transports them to another region, a painless, theoretical region, a play region, surprising, fertile, and unmoral.” In due time we come to realize that the narrator seeks more than mere oblivion: he seeks total emancipation from the demands of civilization.

Specifically, he wants to avoid two things: questioning his life, and working.

And so we arrive at the book’s real theme, which is not heroin or drug addiction, but the illegitimacy of the Protestant work ethic, and, above and beyond that, the indecency of the whole concept of “work” itself. This is the heart and soul of Trocchi’s book, which appears to have been lost on its junkie adherents. Joe Necchi thinks work a bad idea and an even worse habit— worse, to be sure, than junk, which, though it may take possession of its user’s bodies, at least doesn’t rob them of their very natures, their souls (the assumption being that one’s nature is not to work, but to nod off watching sunsets and flies).

The book’s rambling, fragmented, arbitrary form is itself a testimony against rigor: I’ll write my book if I please, when I please, any damn way I please. Transitioning merely by means of sheer strips of white space, narrative gives way to philosophy, or perhaps a random quote from the narrator’s journal—as if what we’re reading isn’t random/journal enough. Part of Trocchi’s plan— the better part of his genius as well—consists of proving to his reader just how free he can be, no less than Picasso painting bulls in the dark with a candleflame, or Nijinsky dancing naked in a Baltic hotel room. Trocchi knows he can write; he doesn’t have to prove it (though he does, in several brilliant set pieces, including a warmly funny reminiscence of his neurotically obsessed father, and a terrifying description of a storm at sea—as good as anything in Conrad or Melville). Rather than satisfy the dry thirst for a crisp, clean narrative, he slakes his own thirst for artistic freedom, and writes only when inspiration, or the mood, strikes.

The result is a book which, however formless, is never without poetry and vigor. Even when waxing didactic (as when railing against our judicial system’s fanatical pursuit of its drug addicts) Trocchi does so with poetic verve. But the book is no diatribe, nor is it meant to be a manifesto. It is in fact a novel in the best sense of that word, in that it shapes its narrative in a new, untried and risky way, unlike so many books today that take no risks, that read as though vying for, if not Oprah’s, the Writer’s Workshop Seal of Approval.

But lest anyone think I praise Trocchi merely for being a renegade, I offer the following evidence that he was, first of all, a writer:

I was standing in the wind, clutching at the doorway of my shack, the sea falling steeply away under my narrow catwalk, and for a moment I had the impression of tottering at the night edge of a flat world. Then I was going down like you go down on a rollercoaster, braced in the doorway, the cabin light flooding out round about me as though it would project me into the oncoming blackness. Black, then indigo as the horizon moved down like a sleek shutter from somewhere high above and flashed below the level of my eyes. A moment later the sea rose with a sucking sound and slid like a monstrous lip on to my quarterdeck about my ankles. It was icy cold. At that moment, staring down at it as it swirled round about the battened hatches, it occurred to me that I might be about to die.

Alexander Trocchi (who remained a heroin user for the rest of his life and died in 1984) never wrote another book, in part because he jettisoned whatever scraps of discipline he’d clung to. In the end, as much as his addiction, his philosophy did him in. “Love and work,” said Freud. And Trocchi, rebelling against the latter, killed off the former—his love for writing, his poetry, his passion.

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