All aboard for Alexander Trocchi’s barge trip on the Clyde Forth Canal. Good film, ten times better book. Thanks to Jonathan Aitken for the review.
The introduction to this 2008 is by Stewart Home who is probably very well known and respected, but I didn’t like it. He wants to place the novel as a ‘protopostmodernist’ exemplar, and says those who see it as related to The Outsider or as containing an ‘existentialist protagonist’ are wrong. I think he is wrong. But be that as his may, it is a very ‘writerly’ book, and even I could go on for ever about it, even with no idea what I am talking about. So just a few comments here.
It is as far as I can see technically perfect. I am not sure after reading the introduction whether a piece of writing’s technical and structural qualities are relevant or permissible these days. But I will remain certain, if only in my isolation, that it is a brilliant work of art.
Talking of art, it is also an extraordinarily painterly book (as well as being a cinematic book, not the same thing). Its painterliness is of sounds too, and white gusts of wet (not rain). The canal is convenient to have around as a reference, and the either ends of Clyde quays and Leith quays. Also a bit of an installation itself with its black screwed wakes and floating a spirit of corpse to supplement the actual one, a plot line that carries much – matches, cigarettes especially: many cigarettes, you could write a thesis on the way time is split by them and what each signifies; Joe has nine just looking in the mirror on the second page (and yes, yes, the mirror too is a device and a symbol and a sort of ey too, and therefore a sort of I which is a problematic eye etc etc), but cigarettes smoke, and this is a painterly- smokerly novel, Trocchi is the John Constable of cigarette smoke… Smoke over the black waters, with their depths and smells (or is it sounds, or is it a mix of sound and smell, as is suggested by either the writer or the writer behind the writer or the protagonist : there are three narrative voices you will have spotted., smoke as mist, as fog, as just formlessness, as cloud, as cloud that paints into other cloud, leaks, soggy – then the quick lurch into startling sharpness of the triangle motif, see how many you can spot including the one dangling from Saint Vitus the jerky tramp,and cranes and hawsers and one which is identified as definitely a symbol, but not ‘of’ anything known *which is exactly what symbols should be), and all these gantries and clashes of metal on metal are the hard girders of a structure or structures, so hard that they are as unbending as the mental structure of isolation, of the feeling of self (maybe too Joe feels this in the toilet drinking whiskey, just like any drinker) opposed to the leaking blending into shapelessness, dark depressions and dread which are the colour of wetness, and mud and soggy grass, and rain is never far away. The explicit expositions about mental structure are superb, should be extracted for a handbook, including the closely observed moments of inauthentic communication just to be allowed not to have to communicate, the sexual dance of flirtation etc. Though Joe is indeed a call him what you will, let’s say psycho, he is just stripped down human meat below what’s beyond the gloomy environs of the Strathlothian line. And forget not that the mirror is cousin to windows, which begin, in the first paragraph to assert their peculiar mystery, and continue throughout, as windows of eyes, of looking intos, of being stared at, look at the strange confusion and vertigo of the mixing lights in the slat of window at the end in the bar when the daylight wearies out and the figures within thereby become brighter, and look at the incredibly condensed use of apertures among the hurdy gurdy goyaesque carnival of the fair. Water Colours, it does indeed, water colours sound and smell and taste and vision. Of course, a central interrogation is of looking and seeing, and how damned difficult it is to see, like how Joe sees in the young students near the end their joy which they themselves cannot see. And if you say that Joe’s way of seeing things is weird, or perverse, or inhuman, or immoral or whatever else you can put together from the official libraries of appropriate res
ponse, don’t forget that this is not a novel about a sick mind but about how the mind in general works. The sex too, the sheer buttock celebrating, strong thigh gaping, manly woman, boyish girl, mechanism of it all, and the minute observations of the red and the white and the spider veins at the top of the the thigh, an endless cataloguing of prurient fascination, this look, this ownership in isolation of the whole world that comes through the clouds now and then with a vivid clashing of image down to the atom.
Another thesis could be written about ‘yellow’, the whole thing is held together by whatever this yellow is, besides its colour but includingg that of course. Fish and flesh,fingerprints on water, this is a truly awful and dreadful novel.