Monday, 17 May 2010

How the Car-Crash of Jack Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose Inspired Me To Get My Thumb Out of My Bottom and Hit the Road

Truman Capote famously trashed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with the words: ‘That’s not writing. That’s typing.’ All I can say is, Capote must have been in an uncharacteristically charitable mood that day, because it’s not typing. It’s projectile vomiting.

‘Spontaneous prose’ Kerouac called it. Pretentiously.


'Kerouac typed rapidly on a continuous scroll of telegraph-paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac's dictum was that "the first thought is the best thought", and he insisted that you should never revise a text after it is written.'

Wow. That's some seriously misguided egomania right there.

Now there were two things, it seems, that we can blame for spontaneous prose. The first was jazz. Not good jazz, however, but the interminably cacophonous crazy jazz that’s basically an improvised orgy of musical masturbation that you always have to turn down when it comes on the radio because you can’t hear yourself think. Kerouac loved jazz. (And he loved the spirited Negroes that made it!).

The second thing was Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady, portrayed in On the Road as Dean Moriarty.

Dean Moriarty is the driving force in On the Road, and the subject of the besotted narrator’s haphazard hagiography.

An odd character to idolise, Moriarty is, amongst other things, a thief, a woman-beater, a practising paedophile, an inveterate bullshitter and a ghastly, unreliable drunk. Worse than all of that, however, at least from the point of view of the beleaguered reader, Dean Moriarty is a monumental bore, obsessed with his own intellect and labouring under the embarrassing misapprehension that each and every one of his rather mundane thoughts and observations is intrinsically interesting.

What really fascinates and arouses Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise – barf – is Moriarty’s spirit. You see, Dean Moriarty is free. Like the Negroes and the Mexicans and the crippled boys and beggars, like the raw-living big-laughing yokels uncorrupted by affluence, Moriarty has soul and spirit and he lives pure and fast and beyond conventional morality. He does what he pleases. And he doesn’t stop talking and he doesn’t stop moving. He never stops. He is the patron saint of ego-propelled perpetual motion.

I get the impression that in 1957, this was all very interesting.

But I can’t really imagine it. I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been shocked by the ground-breaking innovation of this book. I suppose too much time has passed. Or else I don't have enough imagination. However, the book is not without its shocking aspects. The paucity of plot, for example, is horrifying. As is the piss-poor characterisation, the leadenness of the imagery, the humour bypass and the more general, all-pervasive joylessness.

They blather on, Kerouac's deadbeats, about their fascination with life, yet they seem utterly incapable of really enjoying it. And why do they have to be so earnest and pretentious and unassailably self-important? I think I’ve met people like Kerouac before. They’re the same people who refer to themselves as ‘artists’ far too readily and rarely, if ever, have the heart to laugh at themselves.

But maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe the book was important because, as Kenneth Rexroth suggested at the time, Kerouac demonstrated to the world – perhaps even unwittingly – that his generation of self-obsessed delinquents were in fact a pack of worthless hypocritical vermin. That’s not a quote. This is a quote:

‘These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking … Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.’

Rexroth also wrote, of Kerouac’s follow-up novel The Subterraneans:

‘The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about – jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil … As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse.’

Yes! That is so true. In your face, Kerouac! Rexroth is a great writer. You know just from reading a couple of his sentences that he didn't stick with the first thing that came into his head. To be fair, however – if I must – Rexroth also wrote this in his review of On the Road:

‘This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.’

So there you go. It was the American Psycho of its day.

But fifty years is a long time. Today, historical curiosity aside, On the Road is not a good book. In fact, it really is a car crash.

Having said all that, reading On the Road did inspire me. I confess. Because I’m convinced that it takes a special kind of negative energy to turn a subject as readily compelling as hitchhiking into something as painfully mundane as On the Road, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and go on the road myself. And by God, if I don’t find something more interesting than Dean Moriarty on the way, I’ll cut off my own thumb and apologise.

So, next week when I begin the first of two weeks’ holiday, I’m going to celebrate by hitching up north to see how my gran’s getting on. I know that 250 miles up the sagging spine of Englandshire doesn’t really compare with Kerouac’s mammoth mythical treks back and forth across the United States, but, you know, size isn’t everything. And if William Blake could see the world in a grain of sand, I'm sure I can see something halfway interesting in the whole of the M1. Well, we shall see....

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nondisbeliever said...

Not sure if you're making any pit-stops along the way, but if you happen by (or fail to avoid) lovely Birmingham, let me know and I'll buy you a drink.

La Bête said...

Cheers, Believer, I'll bear that it mind.

Fearsome said...

I keep meaning to write to Nestle to ask them if they've ever considered making a Kerouac bar. It would be exactly like a Caramac, only with added jazz, benzedrine and pomposity flavouring.

La Bête said...

Yes, and as soon as you swallowed the last bite, you would immediately start projectile vomiting.

gongman said...

An old friend of mine loves hitch hiking.As a retired head of a large and well known school in the UK he is hardly poor,he just enjoys it.
He is "degreed" up to the eyeballs including philosophy.People who stop to pick him up have no idea of course of just how interesting this man is.By the time they drop him off their lives have been changed in subtle ways they do not realise....provided of course that their minds are open.

Bon voyage Bête,if nothing else you will harvest great material for future blogs :)

Anonymous said...

Do be careful! The last time I hitch-hiked, the driver terrified me with his driving! (I think he did it on purpose!) Plus, men aren't necessarily safer hitch-hiking just because they're men. Look up Randy Kraft. (Shudder!)

But, hey - have fun!!!!!

Maria in Oregon

Anonymous said...

I have never because of Kerouac. What a bore. I tried with 'One the Road' but couldn't be bothered with the welf-srving bullshit. Reminds me of an art installation I discovered through a friend in Dalston which had been developed by minor aristocracy one of whom had had an epiphany whilst travelling through Africa that he needed to bring African Drum music to the people of Dalston, East London. Not sure that that was what they really needed. Perhaps the millions in sponsorship from the champagne company they had engaged might have been better spent than on club nights. I digress.
Self-indulgent dirge at the best.
Oh, and yes, a racist. And misogynist.
It's of it's time but so is a lot of stuff that doesn't need to be revistited. Or only if to realise how things have changed and improved.

Anonymous said...

In defence of American Psycho, there were parts that were well thought through in the way that 'On The Road' was not. I remember a chapter of extreme umpleasantness that then went to the merits of Genesis which seemed so incongruous but that was the point. Found the book difficult to finish though.

La Bête said...

Cheers, Gonga. Yeah, fingers crossed.

Good God Maria! I’d never even heard of Randy Kraft. Thanks for that. I um… yeah, thanks.

Anonymous, well put!

Anonymous II, I love American Psycho. I’m now distraught that I might have implied I didn’t. I merely meant that Rexroth saying ‘This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity’ reminded me it. Actually, saying I love American Psycho might be going a bit far, but I think it's powerful and disturbing and Bret Easton Ellis has a great sense of humour. I mean, what he does with Paul Allen's severed head, that is hilarious.

clumpf said...

Ooh Bete, you be careful with your hitching. Don't wear a short skirt and leave your legs hairy.

I started to read American Psycho 20 years ago and threw it across the room - I hated it. My husband loves Brett Easton Ellis and takes Less than Zero whenever we go on holiday. Always. Everytime.

Mind you, he also tells me the only other book he's ever read is Jaws. He's lucky he's pretty and makes me laugh otherwise he'd be packed.


Abby Waldman said...

Thank you, Bete, it's gratifying to find someone else who didn't like that annoying book, although it was ages ago and I'd forgotten why I'd found it unreadable. I was about 20 and an avid gobbler of books. I tried it after enjoying Tom Wolfe, Tom Robbins and Hunter S. Thompson. Not that any of those writers is beyond criticism but their work is at least fun and interesting. (The internet has ruined my ability to read. I feel a bit sad about that.)

Abby Waldman said...

Oh, I meant to say: I used to love hitchhiking (if the need arises and I'm in a rural area I'll still stick out my thumb) but it's hard to get out of London. Can I suggest making an eye-catching sign and doing some research on where to catch your first lift?

Larry Teabag said...

Any chance you're dropping by Leeds?

La Bête said...

I hate to say it, Clumpf, but your husband is a weirdo. I bet he has a beard.

Hey, Miss K – yes, I’ve got the cardboard ready and I’ll be writing my sign very soon. I’ve already looked into hitching routes too. I’m on it.

Mr Teabag, hello. Um… only if things go wrong. Hopefully I’ll be speeding past Leeds around lunchtime in an open-top Ferrari being driven by some libidinous French starlet or other. Yes. Yes, that’s bound to happen.

isabelle said...

Well, if you pass summer wine country, please pop into the shop to say hello. I'll make you a cup of tea and see if I can't sell/ palm off on you some old tat, or failing that, a book. I have some lovely old travel(much-better-than-On-The-Road)books .

circus monkey said...

Going by Kerouac's criteria even a monkey could write a novel. Heyyyyyy, now that's an idea!

Larry Teabag said...

Well if through terrible luck you find yourself Ferrariless in the vicinity, let me know.

(For what it's worth, I think American Psycho is a rare case of the film being better than the book.)

clumpf said...

I don't go out with bearded blokes Bete. When I met the husband he looked like David Bowie. Now he's lost his hair he looks like a boiled egg.

If he didn't make me laugh there'd be no hope :)

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

‘This is a book you should read. You are humane...' etc

I know I'm just being dim, but I don't understand any of this quote.

"This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels."

So I should read it because I am humane and this is a good novel? But what about all that stuff about jazz and negroes?

"This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity."

Oh, hang on... I am a person who reads good novels, but still I should read this, despite the fact that it ISN'T a good novel? Indeed it is a dehumanizing novel? And society is paying for my humanity by suffering this dehumanizing dross? But why must society pay in this way? And how is my humanity the thing that benefits from all this?

"Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible."

Oh help, now I'm really confused. WHAT have all these people, and the prophets, been saying for all these years? That society must pay for my humanity by suffering books like On The Road? And what have the San Francisco police got to do with anything? Is this person against the SF police, and therefore the SFP's hatred of Ginsberg is proof that he must be right, or is it the other way round?

"Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention."

Which things have got worse? What is nobody paying any attention to? Should people be paying attention to Kerouac? Or is he one of the things that have got worse?

"So there you go. It was the American Psycho of its day."

Ah. OK. So, um... that would help if I knew what you thought of American Psycho. Or what people are generally supposed to think of it. Personally I rather like it. But maybe you don't. Maybe other people don't. Maybe it's famous for having a particular status. I don't know, I'm a bit rubbish at stuff like that.

Ah... now I've read the comments. You like American Psycho. So the quoter probably liked OTR and afforded it similar status, which means that... it means that the dehumanizing thing was referring to... oh it's no use, my head's exploded.

Help. Sorry. I know I'm just being dim, but this whole paragraph made my brain spin in a chain of ever-increasing confusion.

La Bête said...

Cheers, Isabelle. I’ll listen for the sound of witless old men coughing phlegm into their caps. No , no, I’m sure it’s not like that. Ooh, you have a shop. Crikey, I’ve just been looking at your blog. You’re a fantastic writer. And your shop sounds wonderful. Where is it? Where is your shop?

Do it, Monkeyboy. Do it.

Cheers, Larry. Although I’m not sure how this would work. I guess if I’m stuck in Leeds, I’ll just ask someone if they know where Larry Teabag lives, and they’ll give me directions.

Hey, Clumpf. I like boiled eggs.

BS, it’s not terribly straightforward, is it? I think he’s saying that Kerouac wrote a good book about the terrible things that are happening in society, in the same way that these other people did, and that society is worse now than it was back in the day. It’s that dehumanisation sentence that confuses though, isn’t it? It is confusing. I chose to interpret it as best I could and then simply gloss over it in my head. I suggest you do the same.

Swineshead said...

I like American Psycho and think On The Road, dated and pretentious as it is, has a lot to offer - as well as being hugely important stylistically.

It sometimes happens that celebrated books leave a reader cold and feeling a little left out. In fact, I can think of quite a few that have had that effect on me.