Tag Archives: absurd hero

“On the Road”‘s Dilemma

12 Sep

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“[M]ost people (perhaps increasingly) don’t seem to be drawn to fiction that offers more questions than answers,” writes Rob Roberge in “Literary Fiction’s Dilemma” for The Rumpus. Toward the end of the essay, the MFA professor and author of The Cost of Living writes:

We are messy creatures. Beautiful, flawed, disturbed, at times selfless and at times selfish animals left to attempt to make sense of a world that doesn’t lend itself to easy questions or easy answers. To document a world where we are neither gods nor beasts but often a mix of both is to document a world most don’t like to think about.

Roberge makes an interesting—and beautifully written—point that we are complicated beings made up of good and bad characteristics. I wouldn’t necessarily say we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that we don’t live in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing world because I think it’s a very American trait to want to see the silver lining in something and to want to hear a comeback story. I would argue we even prefer our characters a little flawed. We like Jo March, Rodion Raskolnikov, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Sawyer. But I think Roberge is onto something. Even if we don’t desire perfect, goody-two-shoes characters—and I don’t mean to say Roberge is suggesting we do—I think we want the author’s point of view to be morally clear.

Roberge’s thesis does not mention Jack Kerouac, but it got me thinking about the criticism I’ve read about On the Road. So many articles I’ve read about Kerouac’s novel and the recent film adaptation refer to morality:

David Depsey’s 1957 article “In Pursuit of ‘Kicks’” in The New York Times:

Today, one depression and two wars later, in order to remain uncommitted one must at least flirt with depravity. “On The Road” belongs to the new Bohemianism in American fiction in which an experimental style is combined with eccentric characters and a morally neutral point of view.

Referring to Norman Podhoretz’s 1958 essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Andrew O’Hagan writes the following in the New York Review of Books article “Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line”:

In actual fact the Beats now seem pretty innocent: far from being a threatening group of “morally gruesome” primitives, they were a bunch of college kids with a few new things to offer.

Yahoo! Movies describes the film On the Road saying:

Dean is extremely charming and has a flexible moral code….

Amanda Chen reviewed the film for Scene Creek:

If you have a thirst for adventure and a loose line of morality, you will enjoy all that Walter Salles has to offer in his cinematic interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road.

Ann Hornaday reviewed it for the Washington Post:

The literary and larger cultural argument that Kerouac’s book ignited and engaged — about formalism, narrative, morality and breaking open new ways of being and expression — is virtually nonexistent in “On the Road,” Walter Salles’s warm but strangely staid adaptation of a piece of literature that was never meant to be tamed as cinema.

Robert Moor writes in “On The Road Again” for the Paris Review:

The moral atmosphere of American life has changed considerably over the past half century; we have moved towards Kerouac’s liberal ideals, which has slackened the tension between the lived and the imagined.

An anonymous poster on Barnes & Noble left this review:

I can give you symbolism for every event in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I can give you the moral, philosophical points of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. I can decode the works of Burroughs. But ‘On the Road’ left me feeling like it was pointless…a good, enjoyable read, but…pointless.

These reviews would make one think that Kerouac was the first writer to ever write about characters with flaws, that somehow literature up until 1957 was devoid of characters who did “bad” things—or at least if they were immoral they were severely punished for their crimes. I get the sense that they want to see Dean Moriarty die in a fiery car crash or repent of his sins and devote his life to helping winos and pregnant teens. But that’s not how life works, and I think the beauty of On the Road is that it is complex.

Roberge says readers have trouble with work that “offers more questions than answers.” Interestingly, despite criticism to the contrary, it would appear that Kerouac believed he found good, moral answers:

Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.

Kerouac’s characters are complex, flawed, blessed, messy, striking, honest, real. They ask questions we might very well be asking ourselves.

You might also like:

Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell

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Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell

11 Apr

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When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave our class a list of topics we could do our research papers on. We had never studied Saul Bellow before, but his name was on the list, and I chose to write about his absurd heroes. As Wikipedia states:

In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.

When you’re an angsty teenager, life is Absurd. Writing out Spanish vocabulary words three times each in a row for homework was absurd. Learning square dancing in gym class while living in northern New Jersey was absurd. Having to do math long-hand when calculators existed was absurd. Parents were absurd. The routine of waking up, eating cold cuts for lunch, doing homework until bedtime was all absurd. Surely, there had to be more to life than this humdrum suburban life?

When I became an adult, working in a cubicle, my personal email address had the following quote from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man:

It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as ‘the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,’ or ‘the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,’ and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.

It turned out, even when you’re an adult, life is Absurd. I was supposed to be over that the melodramatic apathy of a teenager, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that there had to be more to life. And I don’t think I was living a life more boring than most people. I was working in New York City. I had an enviable job. I had my own one-bedroom apartment. I had a boyfriend. I had a great group of friends. I was happy. But the routine of the day-in, day-out felt so mundane and ordinary … and meaningless. Being happy and successful wasn’t enough.

This is what Saul Bellow’s books capture so wonderfully. At the end of Henderson the Rain King–it came out in 1959; deal with the spoiler–the main character realizes that instead of searching to fulfill his own desires, he should have been helping others get what they want. It’s a long book, and it takes Henderson a long time to get there. Isn’t that just like life? He goes on a road trip of sorts to Africa. He sort of bumbles his way through adventures and has a lot of philosophical mad talk.

It’s because I first read and studied Saul Bellow that I was primed to understand Jack Kerouac. Even though I read it first, Henderson the Rain King actually came out two years after Kerouac’s On the Road, in which bumbling characters frenetically philosophized while road tripping across America. Both Bellow’s and Kerouac’s characters, sensing the alienation and Absurdism of life, have a longing that can best be described as spiritual. The dates of these books’ publications are important to note: Both Bellow and Kerouac had been in the merchant marine during World War II, and these are postwar novels dealing with the philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

Tonight, Joseph O’Niell is reading at the Saul Bellow Slam II at Housing Works. O’Niell is the author of  Netherland. This beautiful novel isn’t written in the aftermath of World War II, like Bellow’s and Kerouac’s works, but of September 11. James Wood, however, wrote in the New Yorker, that it has been “consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.” Astute as that revelation is, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a post-World-War-I novel, whose narrator is  war veteran swept up in Gatsby’s boozy parties that allow people to escape the mundaneness of their lives through social interaction. Netherlands, likewise, deals with the human need for connection.

We live in an Absurd world. We live in a sanitized, consumer, over-educated-and-underemployed culture. There are mass shootings and stabbings and an ongoing war. It is tempting to disengage, to “turn on, boot up, jack in,” as Timothy Leary said. Oftentimes, those who do choose to engage fashion themselves as critics and don a coat of irony. They comment on life from afar instead of risking to bumble through it.

I struggle with letting my walls down, with opening up. I don’t like the idea that people might think the most memorable thing about my day is that I had two cups of coffee or ate burnt toast. It’s hard to admit I long for something more, that I’m not satisfied. I keep turning to this literature, though, and I sense that this dissatisfaction or angst is a good thing. This world will never satisfy, and if I am too comfortable or too fulfilled or too put-together then I am probably deluding myself.

Big Sur and the Best Laid Plans….

15 Oct

I just got back from a trip where everything seemed to go awry.

On my recent trip to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, I had big plans to visit John Steinbeck’s Monterey, where Cannery Row is set, and Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, where he spent time in his friend poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin and the title of one of his books.  This idea, mind you, came after plans had already gone awry when I discovered none of my other friends were able to make it to the wedding or were flying in just in time for the wedding, leaving me with a few days to myself.  I’d been to San Francisco a few times and already done the big touristy things and the Beat literary things in the city (minus the Beat Museum, which wasn’t around the last time I was there–and which will have its own post coming up soon!), so I figured I’d take my literary wanderings a bit further south.

Steinbeck’s Cannery Row came out in 1945, two years before Kerouac made that first big trip out West.  Post-World War II, both Steinbeck and Kerouac spent time in the same area of California—Monterey, Big Sur, Salinas—and wrote about migrant workers, the working class, the down and out, absurd heroes.  Steinbeck writes of Cannery Row:

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Steinbeck’s message is very much Kerouac’s as well.  Kerouac writes about “the holy con-man with the shining mind” and other Beat characters whom society might consider derelicts but whom he considers saint-like.

I planned to do a close study of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and to reread Kerouac’s Big Sur to compare and contrast the places, characters, themes, and language.  Visiting a place can sometimes be the best form of research.  You see and hear things that aren’t in books, get a sense of proportion and distance, and see how the landscape has changed.  I wanted to see the land, to feel the sand between my toes, to have the salty ocean breeze whip through my hair, to smell the sardines.  I wanted to experience the rough terrain that so embodied Kerouac’s mind frame in Big Sur.

Unfortunately, a trip to Big Sur would not happen for me.  My plans went awry when I discovered that after Labor Day public transportation to Big Sur stopped running during the week and that the only tour that stops at Big Sur was sold out before I got to book it.  Discovering this two days before I was supposed to leave—okay, so they weren’t exactly “the best-laid plans…”—put a wrench in my itinerary.

Well, here’s my Pinterest inspiration board for Big Sur.

Here’s an article called “Steinbeck vs. Kerouac: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” from Big Think.

And here’s an article from Monterey County Weekly on the film adaptation of Kerouac’s Big Sur.

I was, however, able to book a different tour that at least went to Monterey.  I had to get up super early–did I mention there were several conferences going on in San Francisco so the only hotel I could find within my budget was an hour away?–to get to the 9am bus.  I got there right on time, getting one of the few remaining seats in the very back of the bus, on the side that wouldn’t have a good view.  …Two hours later, we were still in San Francisco.  The bus was blowing hot air through the vents and overheating–not great for all the senior citizens on the trip (oh, did I not mention the demographic was ever-so-slightly older?).  They brought in mechanics, and when they failed to fix it, we eventually got a new bus.  About half the people on the tour were so mad that their precious vacation time was wasted that they refused to get on and left the tour completely.  The good news: I got a better seat.

Here are a few pictures from Salinas and Monterey.

John Steinbeck references the aphorism “the best-laid plans of mice and men often goes awry” in the title of one of his other books, Of Mice and Men.  The phrase can be traced back to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

Don’t you love that eighteenth-century Scottish English?  (One day I will have to describe my misadventures in Scotland too….)

One of the things I love best about On the Road is Jack Kerouac’s candor that trips often do go awry.  When Sal Paradise, the narrator based on Kerouac, starts his first big road trip from the East Coast to the West, he has grand plans of traveling one great highway all the way there.  That doesn’t work out—nor does he even get out of state before having to turn back and come home again.  He’d been trying to hitchhike his way out of New York City and ended up stranded in a torrential downpour in Bear Mountain, one of the places my own family frequented when I was growing up.  Not one to let problems rain on his parade, Paradise/Kerouac heads back to New York City and buys fare for public transportation that will take him to the first leg of his destination.

Sometimes you just gotta keep on truckin’!  It’s a good lesson for traveling and for life.

What’s the worst that has ever happened to you on your vacation?

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I’m reading tonight at 7pm at  The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy) here in New York City! This is a Storytellers event, hosted by C3.  I’ll be reading from Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadcoauthored with Paul Maher Jr.