Every time I read a review of Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, On the Road, I feel unsatisfied. Reviewers and critics often go out of their way to explain the revolutionary style of the writing and its historical significance. Don’t get me wrong, this is important, but to me this is the topography of the novel, while what I want to read reviewed is its insides – its emotions. So this is not going to be one of those explanatory reviews that delves into the intricacies of the novel’s structure and historical context. Rather, I want to talk about the beating, raging, pumping heart of the book. This is, after all, what draws me back to it, time and again.
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 candlelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ (p. 7)
This is a passage that is ear-marked on nearly every copy of On the Road I own. It’s like the opposite of cynicism; a wild desire to consume everything and everyone. It’s what makes the novel so naked and vulnerable too. It’s a dangerous thing to lay down your expectations and violent optimism before the world. It exposes you in perhaps the most intimate way. I can’t help but relate this to the present: we’re more than willing these days to see people physically exposed in various nude magazines covers, and the like. Yet another celebrity or model baring all and praised for her ‘daring’. We are not, however, at all receptive to a different kind of exposure that reveals a non-tangible depth. This kind of exposure is often labelled ‘naive’ and ‘romantic’. We like our exposure quick, easy, comfortably cool and forgettable. No raging roman candles here. Have you also noticed how people are far more comfortable with small chatter, with carefully guarded revelations about themselves? What’s your job, how old are you, are you married, single, etc., etc., etc. The minute you go deeper, well, it’s like a full stop. While On the Road is often viewed as one of those novels that questions the idea of ‘the American Dream’, to me, it also interrogates the banality of mindless chatter at the background of our lives. It almost drowns this chatter out with its own ceaseless language of uncontrollable rambling sentences, laced with a desperate need to consume depth.
‘I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!’ – and off we’d rush to eat, whereof, as saith Ecclesiastes, ‘It is your portion under the sun.’ A western kinsman of the sun, Dean. Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age; and a little bit of trouble or even Dean’s eventual rejection of me as a buddy, putting me down, as he would later, on starving sidewalks, and sickbeds – what did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me. (p. 10)
Ah, this is so perfect, it almost doesn’t need anything to be said about it. Maybe it’s too romantic to empathise with this passage, but I really do. I keep waiting for ‘the pearl’ to be handed to me too, and I suspect a lot of other people secretly do as well. I guess this is what makes On the Road so memorable: in invites empathy with those secret, somewhat youthful expectations we have when we begin to sort out what kind of people we are. And it says it all in unflinching, unashamed black and white. This is comforting to me.
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the crack of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was half-way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon. (pp. 15-16)
I’ve often woken up feeling the same way. It’s a bizarre estrangement from yourself. For a split second, you really ‘forget’ who you are, and disassociate from your daily routines. They’re moments of gaps in your consciousness that remind you in a gentle sort of way that you really are not a static being, that it’s ok to feel messy and chaotic every once in a while. I love this novel because on every other page, I encounter a passage that makes me recognise myself. This book is like written permission to feel things that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, or that are perhaps too incongruous to acknowledge consciously.
In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great Western Slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Western Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in the darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess – across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent. (p. 49)
I can see Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in this passage, can’t you? I can see the beginning of a collection of minds on a quest. The Beat generation is often associated with breaking moral and social boundaries, and yet, the most important part of this transgression is what they are seeking on the other side of such boundaries: meaning, like a journey inward. Whenever I read Howl I feel like a perfect way to describe it would be to call it ‘the book of wanting’. It is all about wanting an unnamed something, while demolishing established beliefs and moral codes along the way. Kerouac’s On the Road is similarly about wanting; about stretching from one end of America to the next in search of something that will make words obsolete. Ironically, this is what compels Kerouac to write. I almost feel ridiculous saying I can relate to this search and this wanting, but I do. I do believe, without any trace of romanticism, that there is something that compels me to write, and every time I pick up On the Road, I feel like I am validated in some small way.
It was the saddest night. I felt as if I was with strange brothers and sisters in a pitiful dream. Then complete silence fell over everybody; where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself, but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic, right under the lightbulbs, his bony mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him all the time now, and I am convinced they were, and others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT – the root, the soul of Beautific. (p. 177)
Kerouac once described the meaning of ‘Beat’ as a mixture of exalted exhaustion and the religious state of ‘beautific vision’. If ever there was a passage that described this definition of ‘Beat’, it’s this one. I’m more interested in the idea of exalted exhaustion than in the religious connotations, because to me, it signifies a quiet triumph that is born from despair. I’m still trying to slowly unravel the idea of exalted exhaustion though, and poor Dean’s bony and vein-throbbing face always haunts my attempts.
I suspect there are way better reviews of On the Road than this one, but I feel oddly satisfied having expressed these thoughts. Has anyone read the novel, and if so, what did you think of it?
All images are by James Turnley. The minute I saw these photographs on his website and flickr account, I was struck by how they reminded me of On the Road. I can’t explain it, but they seem to have the same uncanny and depth-ridden tone as the novel. Thanks James, for letting me feature your amazing work!
The copy of the novel I've quoted from is: Jack Kerouac, On the Road, London: Penguin, 2000.
I promise this will be the last time you’ll see the word ‘competition’ on my blog for quite some time, but this is my final request to vote for me in the Sydney Writers' Centre blog competition. The voting closes tomorrow at 5pm, Sydney time. If you’ve already voted, I would really appreciate anyone helping me spread the word about this. Thanks so much everyone!