Friday, December 3, 2010

On (and off) the Road with Jack Kerouac

The last time I was in the Strand Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums; I figured that, for eight bucks, I really had nothing to lose.

Until I learned a rather painful lesson: When it comes to Kerouac, it doesn't get better than On the Road.

This is not the first time I met with such displeasure when Kerouac's name was attached to a book. I felt it, too, with Grove/Atlantic's release of a lost novel co-authored by Kerouac and William Burroughs--And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

The Dharma Bums does not come as the first time that I ran into some...frustrations with the unrefined nature of Kerouac's work. It's an inevitable hallmark of his work, evinced in his famous methodology piece "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," in which he writes
LAG IN PROCEDURE No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.
TIMING Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time--Shakespearian stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue--no revisions (except obvious rational mistakes, such as names or calculated insertions in act of not writing but inserting).
The concept--which is wincingly at work in The Dharma Bums--is the transformation of the page from a crafted literary artifact into a textual vomitorium. For this reader, at least, there is little pleasure in the discovery of Ray Smith's arduous and repetitive run-on sentences, his arduous and repetitive recounting of prolonged conversations on Buddhist theology in the novel's first seventy pages. Sentences such as the following are commonplace in The Dharma Bums:
I felt it was Morley who had done the influencing--he had the same snide, sarcastic, extremely witty, well-formulated speech, with thousands of images, like, when Japhy and I walked in and there was a gathering of Morley's friends in there (a strange outlandish group including one Chinese and one German from Germany and several other students of some kind) Morley said "I'm bringing my air mattress, you guys can sleep on that hard cold ground if you want but I'm going to have pneumatic air besides I went and spend sixteen dollars on it in the wilderness of Oakland Army Navy stores and drove around all day wondering if with rollerskates or suction cups you can technically call yourself a vehicle" or some such to-me-incomprehensible (to everybody else) secret-meaning joke of his own, to which nobody listened much anyway, he kept talking and talking as though to himself but I liked him right away. (29)
Holy sentence, Batman. And this is coming from an avid believer in the possibilities of the sentence pushed to its extremes, but the different here is the author's sense of control. Even the Penelope episode of Ulysses, which is Molly Bloom's unpunctuated soliloquy, demonstrates a sense of authorial control, of a delicate and deft handling of words. Following his desire for spontaneous prose, though, Kerouac lets The Dharma Bums' narrator, Ray Smith, throw all the lyricism of On the Road with a ditch. Compare, for instance, the above garbled redundancy (a German from Germany? Oy....) to a moment at the beginning of Sal Paradise's venture in On the Road:
But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people who for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" (5-6)
Both excerpts are long sentences, yes, but the example from On the Road--which is the earlier of the two novels--demonstrates a willingness to punctuate as well as a more careful consideration of words. Both excerpts build in the way that we might expect from such "spontaneous prose," but Sal Paradise, narrating the latter of our two quotations, has a more lyrical voice and provides us more readily with specific verbs ("shambled") and luminescent images ("fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars").

When I next feel inclined to read Kerouac, I'll bum around with Sal Paradise, who has a narrative voice that's more readable, more lyrical, and--I cannot emphasize this enough--far less frustrating.


  1. Kerouac! Yeah, I've heard that Kerouac's at his zenith was On The Road and I'm not too pushed to read anything else by him. Though I've been attempting to write some spontaneous stream-of-consciousness scenes lately and good god, is it difficult. I guess my style is more austere and super-polished, but I'm trying to work some experimentation into that... hmmm, we shall see. Tricky stuff. -Anna

  2. @Anonymous
    "Spontaneous Prose" is inspiring especially for younger writers, and On the Road gets Kerouac major praise for its seeming effortlessness. But On the Road is far more refined, far more lyrical. And stream of consciousness takes far more revision and precision than Kerouac's delusion of spontaneous prose. Compare On the Road or Dharma Bums to Joyce's Ulysses (which took Joyce almost eight years to write) and you'll see what I mean.

  3. Aha, that's good to hear. So far my "stream-of-consciousness" attempts mostly end up being sentences strung together with no punctuation OCCASIONALLY WITH WORDS IN ALL-CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. I really must attempt to read Ulysses again... I tried the month after I returned from Moscow, and I made it a good deal through Part 2, but then I had to go to Ireland and I didn't want to lug it with me on the plane.