Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I've officially done it!  Wallace's read-along for Kerouac's On the Road is complete and I can now say that I Have Read This Book.

I discovered that many of my fuzzy notions about this book were actually sizable misconceptions.  For example, I was rather worried about the rumours of stream-of-consciousness and hard-to-follow writing.  In actuality, Kerouac's writing was one of the things that made this book enjoyable.  I adored this (from page 8) which was just about as "streamy" as it got:

They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank.  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 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!"

I loved this description: “His excitement blew out of his eyes in stabs of fiendish light.”

Apart from being a little bit in love with Kerouac himself, I also loved the clear picture of America and Mexico in the late 1940s.  It was like getting a real glimpse of history, rather than a retelling.  Unfortunately, the novelty of traveling and visiting places familiar and strange wore off the more Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassidy) was in the picture.  That guy is just a super-stressball (compounded by the fact that I know someone who (in some ways) is very much like him.  So much that I've actually heard the same defense for said person as Kerouac did for Dean:)
I longed to go and put my arm around Dean and say, Now look here, all of you, remember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains and he's given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn't enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that's apparently what you're itching to do anyway...
Another misconception I held before reading the book was that it was all only sex&drugs.  Certainly there is a lot of sex&drugs, (one scene in Mexico stands out in my mind,) but for the most part, Kerouac's insights and observations made it apparent that post-WWII America was a little lost and trying to figure out exactly what life was all about.  The problem was the lack of hope.  Seeing a group of people not be able to move on, or grow out of, such behaviors is sad.  Although I appreciated the historical importance, and enjoyed Kerouac's writing, most of this book ended up leaving me somewhat ambivalent.  Dean was stressful, and everyone's inability to be content was depressing.

I am glad I read it though, both for its significance in literature, and because I no longer have those misconceptions I began with.  It was easy to read in many respects, but a growing experience at the same time.  Kerouac had many acute observations, even in the midst of dizzying jazz and exhilarating car rides, that made my time with the book much more enjoyable that it might have been otherwise.  I'll leave you with one I especially liked.
Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy mess and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.

10 comments:

  1. I have mixed feelings about On the Road because on the one hand I think it's kind of awesome, and then on the other hand I wrote a whole essay on how it's pretty misogynistic, and really, it's pretty misogynistic. But I still like it and then kind of feel bad about that and ALSO, yes, how stressful was Dean?!

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    1. I agree completely Laura! Half love/half hate. I kept wondering if the misogyny could be blamed largely on the combination of the time he lived (that whole macho with the guys/tender with the girls thing they tried to balance) and the fact that we was writing about personal things. What do you think? Did you come up with a verdict?

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  2. Your misconceptions are my misconceptions as well, but I'm still not convinced about trying it out. I know it's a book-worm tabu but I think I'll wait for the movie :P

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    1. A lot of times I'll watch the movie first - it's less of a time commitment, right? With this one (and Anna Karenina too, now that I think about it) the thing that I'm afraid the movie will fail to capture is the theme. They'll probably do a fine job telling the story, but will they be able to communicate the layers of grey that make the story valuable? We'll find out!

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  3. So, would you lose all respect for me if I said that there were only two reasons that I would read this book: your review, and the fact that Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer loved it.

    I may have many misconceptions about this book, but its being difficult to read I don't think was one of them, since a fictitious character I loved didn't struggle through the book (see: Xander).

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    1. That's a pretty entertaining combination of reasons! I think this is like Catcher in the Rye in the sense that it appeals to the younger crowd that shares the urge to buck tradition. The only reason I'd encourage someone to read it is the historical aspect: if they found themselves with a sudden interest in the Beats or in seeing a view of post-WWII America. Buffy is probably a good reason also. :)

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  4. I loved this book, though it has been a long time since I've read it. I went through a big Beat phase in college :) BUT I did just read Jack's Book: an oral biography of Jack Kerouac which was fascinating!

    *I'm going to add this comment from my own account, as I think the comments I left on your review of One of Ours by Cather with the Classics Club account may have been disappeared! -Sarah

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    1. Jack's Book sounds interesting! On the Road definitely left me with a bit of a Kerouac-crush, so I may have to check this one out. :)

      (oh, and I found your comment...I was playing around with my comment settings so they were awaiting moderation. Sorry about that!)

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  5. This has always been on my list of books that I just don't get. As in, I just don't get why people love it so much. Though, when I go back and read some of the passages I highlighted, the writing style is gorgeous. I don't know - at the time, I remember thinking it was Kerouac's generational knock off of The Sun Also Rises. And I thought Hemingway did it better.

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    1. I'm generally a non-fan of Hemingway, though I feel like I should try to appreciate him more. Maybe The Sun Also Rises would be a good place to attempt that! I think the success in On the Road is more in the defining of a generation than it is a literary masterpiece (to Kerouac's chagrin) even though - like you said - there are some beautifully written passages.

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