“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 boy, are they mad.
In fact, I was constantly left feeling that the madness permeating the lives of these characters bordered on actual insanity. I found it very hard to relate to them. Despite the extraordinary beauty of the language (it’s very quotable, see above), it took me much longer than usual to finish this novel. I enjoyed the spirit with which the characters embarked upon their journeys, in their search for meaning and enlightenment. But, constantly felt irritated, and unsatisfied when I put the book down.
The characters’ treatment of each other is by turns callous and caring, sometimes superficial, and often borders on extortion. The men walk all over the female characters, none of whom do anything to change their position apart from throwing tearful, hysteric fits with one baby on their hip and another in their belly. At one point Dean relishes in the view of poor Mexican children sleeping on straw mats in one-roomed houses with shutters for windows, proclaiming “I am digging these interiors”. That really got to me. These are people that I would pick a fight with.
Kerouac’s acclaimed novel was based on his own personal adventures around the American countryside. He recorded notes as he traveled, and then spent a frenzied three weeks, hopped up on caffeine (among other things), typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper which he had cut to size and taped together. The novel then went through many rejections and iterations before a heavily-edited version was accepted and published in 1957 by Viking (now a part of Penguin, now a part of Random Penguin*). The result is an apparently watered down version of his original scroll, with the names of the characters changed to avoid potential libel cases. Although, the scroll has since been published as well, because we need to make all the money we can from dead people. The original ending still remains a mystery though, as that part of the original scroll was eaten by a dog. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. That’s probably why he wrote a book. Stranger than (autobiographical) fiction.
The book (and the beat-generation it inspired) arose out of a post-war era in which conformity was the norm, and rebellious behavior of all kinds were suspect. Some critics have argued that this is exactly why the book remains relevant today — one American war having given way to another. Others argue that 55 years ago sex, drugs and a journey of self-discovery was far more shocking than it is today. As a result the content, if not the context, is out of date.
There’s also an argument over what “beat” is meant to mean: “tired and beaten down”, or (as Kerouac himself believes) “beatific”. It seems to me that they are both. The characters are weary. They are blissful, but it is an unthinking and careless bliss, achieved at the expense of other characters (usually female ones).
John Clellon Holmes wrote that the beat generation was in search of an answer to the question: how are we to live? I’m not sure I like the answer that Kerouac is proposing. Sal and Dean seem to be trying to find a different way of being in the world, one which allows them to relinquish themselves of the burdens of the society which they find so restricting. They do this by banding together with beer-breathed “I love you, mans” shouted in brawling bars, and driving across country with strangers. That’s cool. But, at some point don’t you have to just grow up?
I’ve also realised that I do love a story in which stuff happens. I like shit to go down. While beautifully told, there is not much plot here, and the main driving force for these characters is sex, which together make for a pretty baseless story arc. I didn’t know that the novel was adapted to the screen last year. I am especially interested to see how they’ve dealt with this.
I discovered why I was struggling through this book just this weekend, and since my realisation it has been much easier for me to read it — and much more enjoyable. Jon and I attended a Skrillex concert with the rest of young Cape Town on Friday night. It was on a farm about 45 minutes from the CBD. Electro and Drum & Bass music pounded over the fields of parked cars. All around us students and teenagers bounced, and jumped, and shouted, and spontaneously broke into song while running circles around their friends. Seeing them revel in the moment, and loose themselves to the music (and the booze et al.) made me realise that these are the Dean Moriaty’s of the world, and I’m just not one of them anymore.
You should also definitely have a look at Paul Rogers’ blog, where he has done an illustration for a quote from each page of the book. They really are quite lovely.
*Yes, I know that’s not the real name, but it should be.