Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Road - Jack Kerouac

I picked up a copy of On the Road in mid-2007 in the lead up to my first trip to North America. It was a significant journey – I was newly single after a five year relationship, was heading overseas for the first time (if you don’t count New Zealand, which I choose not to) and, while meeting up with family and friends along the way, I was largely making my own way around the great continent.

The legendary story and it’s mad, majestic protagonist, Dean Moriarty, were familiar to me through knowledgable friends and I thought it would be the perfect read for the time. Even as I struggled through, I conned myself into buying the sell – the maniacal adventure with no obvious plot, just rambling ‘spontaneous prose’ that seemed to go everywhere but nowhere in particular. The proof of my struggle was in the fact I didn’t finish. In a way I wish I had, as it was a timely read for me, but on the other hand I just wasn’t in the right head space. At that time I couldn’t find the relaxed focus required to deal with Kerouac’s style; it was too great a challenge for my racing, anxious mind. Even if I had finished, I wouldn’t have gotten much more out of it. I was just reading words to get them read and move onto the next thing. I was always looking to the next moment in those days, not allowing myself – or perhaps able – to revel in the moment.

And now it seems to me that this is just what the book is all about - living in the moment.

So I’m glad I didn’t finish it four years ago because I may never have come back to it. I returned to it as part of a current effort to read more, including ‘classics’, and it was sitting there on my shelf begging to be completed. I couldn’t even remember how far I made it through last time; not that I seriously considered continuing from that point. Well maybe momentarily as the devil on my right shoulder (surely it sits on the right) spruiked the short cut.

Four years on I am a different person – ‘rewired’ and more relaxed – and in a particularly interesting, if terrifically uncertain, phase of life. Things are changing in and around me; living in the moment has become a goal and mantra. So it turned out that this was the ideal time to tap into the spirit embodied by On the Road.

I quickly fell in love with the book this time.

After my struggle with Ulysses I was a little reluctant to jump into another classic novel. In other words, I felt I needed something light. Yet, while neither book contain simple, straightforward prose, Joyce seems to delight in complex, intricately constructed writing for the sake of it, to the point where the style overbears the story and comes across to a relatively unsophisticated reader like myself as somewhat pretentious. Kerouac’s often breathless narrative (the original manuscript of which was written in a ‘non-stop three week burst’) on the other hand, hit upon an attitude to life that resonated deeply.

And it’s nothing to do with the geographical adventure – the road itself is really just a means to the end. The novel captures the excitement, restlessness and beauty of the moment; no looking back, no time to pause and reflect, just dig and move on to the next thing. But you must dig. Don’t just choose life, dig life. Respect others, but fuck their expectations of you. This is your one shot at life, we’re all going to die so why waste time being caught up in what’s passed by or social norms that seek to dictate to you where happiness resides. Find it in and for yourself.

My love of this book is summed up neatly in this, probably my favourite passage:

“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 stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ "

Like narrator, Sal Paradise, I am generally the one chasing the madness more so than exuding it. I’m the one looking for, and basking in the glorious influence of, the Dean Moriarty’s.

And they do come along. People that burst into your life like a firecracker in the dark sky, their sparkling influence reaching far into all aspects of your being, and eventually they often fade and fall away – but tiny particles of their presence land scattered about and remain always, hidden but going nowhere. I’ve known them.

I might come back to and enjoy Ulysses someday the way I did with On the Road. I have my doubts though. I can’t see it ever having the same impact. Ulysses is sophisticated and intellectual, but On the Road is for the everyman, the Dean Moriarty that lives somewhere in all of us, as it did in Sal Paradise, waiting to ignite the spark of life. The only reason for the comparison here is that they are the most recent two books I’ve read (this is my blog after all and I can do what I want), but they are not entirely dissimilar in style. When it boils down to it though, I just couldn’t understand what Ulysses was on about so the exercise, for me, was somewhat pointless.

But man did I dig On the Road!

1 comment:

  1. This is a cool article :) Check out Big Sur next, I think you'll enjoy it.