Sunday, March 6, 2011

On the Road

So I read Infinite Jest and I figured next I would read ulillillia's book, which should be in the mail shortly, like several days ago shortly. But, as I've implied, it didn't come when I expected it to so I decided I really shouldn't get in the habit of not reading and read On the Road, as recommended by a friend of mine.

Basically I want to set up some nice contrasts in my reading sequences. I feel like Infinite Jest is constructed reality. On the Road is spontaneous reality. The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters will be constructed fantasy. Afterwards I just need spontaneous fantasy.

Anyways, On the Road. This book was ruthlessly effective. I've heard it again and again that the cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac is reread him at 30. I get it, I think. This really is spontaneous fantasy, in a way. It all very likely happened in real life very similarly to how it was described in the book, I don't doubt that. But what's described in the book are the highlights that best support his "argument", best exemplify the emotions he wanted to portray. What isn't described, or is only mentioned in passing, is the undeniable hell that their life must have been like at times. "We got jobs doing X for a few days to make enough money to make it to Y": these sorts of things happen often and are given little reason to particularly pity them - in fact, the only extended descriptions of labor seem exciting and fulfilling and enviable; Sal feeling at one with the Earth in the cotton fields, Dean parking cars in a fervor and seeming to enjoy the rush, etc - but it's work all the same, hard work that I doubt the majority of people could do, much less enjoy it. I doubt I could, at least.

Basically, the magic of the book is that anyone sufficiently young and foolish will read it and feel like they could and should tackle the road in this fashion and really live it up. I feel that way, in a strange almost ironic way. I feel like I wouldn't turn down an invitation to such a trip, at least, even if I went along in some sort of semi-indulgent masochistic-pessimistic fashion, the way one voluntarily watches a movie they know will be bad. For the experience of it, you know? That's really the meat of the trip, is that everything is an experience. They dig everything. The reader digs everything that they dig because we're told why they did. But could the average man really be able to appreciate these sights after driving all night, eating little and sleeping less, having the guilt of neglected family and unsettled affairs?

And that's the secret of the book: Dean and Sal, Neal and Jack - they aren't normal people, they aren't even especially good people, but they present their actions in such a way that seems achievable by anyone. There's a real appeal to pretty much anything yet undone, especially the sort of difficult but conceivable thing that you can picture yourself doing perfectly. Personally, I have this with walking places. I feel like I can walk an infinite distance without tiring, that my legs are some 2nd law of thermodynamics violating miracles of science that will never let me down. I honestly feel like right now I would have no problem walking for two or three consecutive days. I know that's objectively false, but I cannot actually get my head around my inability to do this. It would be like trying to imagine losing my ability to walk at all, the process is so natural and my limits are always beyond the horizon, imperceivable. This whole book has this sense for me. I mean, forget that I'm a bad driver and have difficulty approaching strangers and require above average amounts of sleep for some stupid reason! I could totally get to California with no money! Furthermore, I could have a generation inspiring enlightening time!

It's really this last thing that makes the whole thing seem so appealing, so romantic. Kerouac is as good a writer as any I've read when he's on point and in his niche. The way he seamlessly switches from mad quotes from Dean to wonderful descriptions of the scenery to genuinely profound, but never stiflingly intellectual, introspection. These are mirrored by occasions in the plot for him to listen to Dean, view the scenery or simply be alone with his thoughts: the content of the book bends perfectly with the plot, never fighting against the events to wallow further in his thoughts or blocking out said thoughts with progression. And yet, these transitions are so seamless, and the emotional pacing is so masterful, that you'd swear it would require huge amounts of planning and editing to achieve, and yet the natural tone and unmistakable trails of unfettered human thought seem to defy this as well.

The only answer to this paradox, as far as I can see, is that the experience was so much that even its distant memory can inspire the prose to flow so naturally and vividly. Much has been said about the legendary writing spree that produced the original scroll in a manner of weeks, much has also been said about the massive editing it underwent afterwards. I'd like to read the original version at some point, but I feel like the distillation of it has produced something perhaps more wonderful. As I said, the chief magic of the book is that nearly everyone who reads it imagines that they could do this and have a great time. The chief quality of the book is how subtly the truth of the adventure weaves in, and how irrelevant it is. One of the scenes that I found most striking is when Dean gets a job selling cookery and then decides to stop one day. His boss shows up and collects the unsold pots, the "sad pots" while Dean sits with mad indifference. Not much is made of how Dean doesn't react to this, but I think it's key, given his wild empathy with all other walks of life. I feel like there are scenes when a true guilt sinks through Dean, and a true fear through Sal, and I'm left with this sort of realization that probably much more of the trip was saturated by these sort of emotions, hesitation, fear, doubt, etc. and they were simply dropped from the book. Why? Not because Kerouac wanted to operate under the delusion that his trip was wholly ideal, but because the true reality of everything they felt, everything they did, is right there for display, between the lines.

It's only great literature that can allow you to relate to the characters and then relate to the author in a wholly different way: Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, etc, and I would argue On the Road. Kerouac presents the trip with the romanticism that only he can really see but convinces you that you will too. He makes the thing seem like attainable magic, like a livable dream. To read him at 30 is to read him with reality on your side, with the truth of the matter much more apparent: the work is hard, you miss the food, you sometimes fight, etc. It's not so much a disservice to Kerouac for you to reevaluate it like this, it's just looking at the other side of the coin. I imagine. I dunno I'm not 30 and I still want to road trip.

The whole thing's like Tropicana Orange Juice. I love explaining how Tropicana makes orange juice, I had the opportunity to do it again today. Basically they chemically separate the oranges down to very basic components: various sugars, chemicals and water. Said water then sits in big vats for extended periods of time. Then they add in whatever chemicals and sugars are necessary to give the impression of natural orange juice, but without the parts that limit shelf life and such. It's a closed system, nothing non-orange ever goes into it, but it really creeps people out with it's weird unnaturalness. I think it's beautiful. It's taking what people think they want and giving them exactly what they really wanted.

And oh man did this book ever make me want to grab enough orange juice to last me a few weeks and then head off on whatever road looks the most major until I start LIVING SOME LIFE, man.

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