Monday, March 16, 2009

Things That Are Overrated: On The Road

I struggled for a moment trying to decide wether to put this in the overrated category, or just to make an arbitrary post about the book, but since my general conclusion was that the book is fairly overrated, I decided to use the pre-existing theme of the blog. I read this book last week, which also speaks to the lack of posting for those few days, for several reasons. Obviously it's highly regarded, so I figured it would be good. Also I'm into the classics, and this seemed like one of them. It's also just a good pop culture reference and I take my pop culture responsibilities seriously.

I'm not really certain where to begin. This book is one of the more influential works of the 20th century. There are plenty of songs and books, poems and movies that owe their existence to On The Road, but I can't really say that I connected to it. I think when the book was released it was met with praise about there being an underlying truth to it that transcends the time it was written in, but I don't think that's the case. I think the book immediately influenced people in the time it was written, but today it's pretty dated. Additionally, I'm not really in love with the prose that seems to be the defining trait of this novel.

A (very) short summary. This guy Sal is trying to make it as a writer and his not being tied down to a job or anything allows him to go all over the country to visit acquaintances who are spread all over. He hithchikes, takes buses, drives, and eventually works his way all over the country. At the same time this other dude, Dean, accompanies him a lot of the time. They rarely have a specific agenda other than to go around, listen to jazz, and pick up girls. There's a bit more to it, but that's the gist.

The summary is necessary in pointing out that the book is essentially autobiographical. Jack Kerouac sat down to write the book with the idea that he was telling his wife about his life in the years before he met her. The original manuscript had the real names of the people he encountered and everything, and were later changed during editing. I mention this because this wasn't a story that was created. There's no particular genius in just telling about things you did. With that being said, presenting that material in a way that's insightful or that leads to larger conclusions about life would certainly be a worthwile venture. But this isn't that. There is no analysis, there is no grand conclusion, it's all just exposition. This type of work could lead one to really analyze each scenario and decide what lessons one might have learned, especially given that the plot has essentially written itself.

As a result, the whole thing is really just kindof empty. The only time the prose really sings is in three separate sections when he's describing himself watching live jazz performances. Those sections are loaded with purple prose and captivating metaphors and are easily the highlight of the book. Outside of that, he might as well just be telling you about last night's episode of American Idol.

Now I think maybe the point of the book is that the whole thing is kindof empty. The book, life, and everything else. It is the defining work of the "beat" generation, so named because, in one respect, they are beaten down by life, and have, in one way or another, lost their way. But I didn't get the beaten down by life thing from the book. What I got instead was that this was a book about a bunch of losers who shirked thier responsibilities and allowed themselves to be easily swayed by thier ids, and drugs, and one guy who they all knew was a loser, but who was fun to be around until he no longer needed them at which point he would leave without a second thought.

There's an underlying sadness in this book. The main character, Sal, apparently a thinly veiled version of Kerouac himself, has no goals, no ideals, no plans, and no ideas of his own. And this is a book about a lost soul, in the same way that The Catcher In The Rye is about a lost soul, but it's completely different. These two books remind me of each other in the aforementioned lost soul wandering around looking for meaning type of way, but at the same time, On The Road is a far inferior version. What is great about The Catcher In The Rye is that there is a definite universality in the Holden character. We are not exactly the same as him, but we can identify with him and his journey. The style that Catcher is written in is similar to this one, though it is interspersed with Holden's interesting philosophy on life. And even though he's a lost soul, and even though he may never find his way, we at least know that he's striving toward something. The Sal character in on the road doesn't offer any of that. The one thing I know he's passionate about is jazz. Other than that, I can't say anything more about him other than the fact that he took these various road trips.

This is really where the book falls short for me. There is no underlying anything, other than sadness. I wish there was more beneath the surface and there really just isn't here. It's just a retelling of events. If we gave MMG 6 beers, he could recount an On The Road type of story about a fraternity party or a ski trip.

In conclusion, this book is overrated. It feels dated to me and the references feel stale. The Catcher In The Rye is just as old, but doesn't feel dated, and offers more than just a surface story. What's missing in On The Road, then, is that universal element, that timeless piece, the marrow.

1 comment:

Walt Clyde Frazier said...

I've never read it. Based on this review, though, it sounds like a little like Seinfeld, minus the drinking, drugs and jazz. Yet Seinfeld is hilarious, as are MMG's stories.