Wednesday, September 19, 2007
On the Road: A trip through America Unscathed by Thought
On the Road is a book one ought to read , I think, in order to know something of a part of a generation responded to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; in line, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair and eureka! quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and and is a fully convincing evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated he and his fellow writers Kerouac had some intuitive notion of spontaneous community when it came to he and his friends bumming around the roads in a variety of heisted cars, trying to live on the kind of wits that fire up only in the face of near disaster. It's the community of the foxhole, a world with a bond that's intimate, understood instantly, without words, a bond that's held onto due to the members' sense that their lives depend on it. Lives do depend on the bond, in literal foxholes, but this mindset was something Paradise and his boys carried around with them, wherever they went, a thinking that innoculated the travelers from whatever elements, textures, values the local scene might have on them.
They were always passing through, resisting change, impulsively impervious to nuance, being themselves wherever on the map they stopped for a period; these were the same personalities in Denver that started in New York, and fairly much the same assortment of tics and tells by novel's end. On the Road might be considered the first post modern novel, in that America is seen as merely stops along the way, with the final destination being the edge of the earth the characters seemed to be looking for, that blankness beyond the road signs and small town bars where the silence and serenity they sought can absorb them and quiet the chattering noise in there heads. It is post modern in the sense that for whatever adventures these guys have, no seems touched by anything except the brief satisfaction of their own drunkeness, rant or sexual release; nothing effects them, nothing changes them, they are , like all unhinged signifiers, unmoved.
It did turn into a worthwhile project for later writers to examine the surface presentation of American culture and reveal it in conflict with the collective desire for a metaphysics of presence, but Kerouac only gives a brief hint to the uglier and more comic possibilities of the terrain he happened upon.His short fall was in making Sal Paradise such a flitty motormouth, a man who notices everything about him and yet cannot describe what he notes in memorable language. This is a book about a man trying to outrun himself.
Since writers are in the habit of making up stories as a matter of habit and profession, each of them, not just the beats, "faked" everything. That shouldn't be surprising from a class of folks we look to for tales, fables, metaphors and such that we might use , in some loose way, in making our own lives fit our skins better. The question is how well ,uhhhh, how artful one is in manipulating language towards the creation of fiction or a poetry where the world as its spoken resounds with suggestion and portents of secret knowledge. Some Beat writers I like, and consider brilliant, like William S. Burroughs. He was the one stone-cold genius in the bunch, was the most interesting and successful destroyer and re-creator of literary form, and maintained what Mailer called a "gallows humor" that allowed him to explore the gamier side of human personality without mythologizing the journey. Ginsberg's early poems , as well, were filled with the bulls-eye hitting jeremiads that were such an exact fit for the condition he described that it still comes off as a fresh and blistering criticism of a culture that seems interested in no more than conformity. Fakery is what one expects and demands from creative writers. Beat enthusiasts might blanch at the notion, but comes down to the skill of the writer to get away with the imaginative tall tales he's putting forth. It's about how well controls their technique in the construction of the lie we might want to invest in for a period.